LAHORE: The Archdiocese of the Catholic Church in Lahore was forced to issue a public apology on Monday evening after Pakistani Christians across the world severely criticised the clergy for allowing Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to make a political speech in connection with the upcoming NA-120 by-elections, from the pulpit of the Roman Catholic cathedral in the city last week.
On Sept 1, Maryam visited the Sacred Heart Cathedral along with Senator Kamran Michael, Punjab Minister for Minorities Affairs Khalil Tahir Sindhu and Bishop of Raiwind Rt Reverend Azad Marshall.
It was said that Maryam had visited the church for special prayers for her mother Begum Kulsoom Nawaz, who is reportedly suffering from throat cancer and had undergone a surgery in London on Thursday.
During the special service, the former PM’s daughter was allowed to address the audience from the pulpit — a raised enclosed platform from which the preacher delivers the sermon.
After acknowledging the role of the Christian community in the development of Pakistan, Maryam used the opportunity to appeal for votes for her party in the NA-120 by-poll. The seat fell vacant after the disqualification of her father Nawaz Sharif in the Panama Papers case. Begum Kulsoom is the party’s candidate for the by-poll and Maryam is heading the campaign in her absence.
Maryam also criticised Sharif’s disqualification by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, saying the country needed a change in the judicial system rather than change of prime ministers.
While it is not yet known whether Maryam was told beforehand by the clergymen or her party members to avoid making political comments inside the church, the incident triggered an uproar in the community, as Pakistani Christians took to the social media to protest against the ‘sacrilege’ of the pulpit.
The incessant criticism ultimately forced the Archdiocese of the Catholic Church in Lahore to issue a public apology.
A statement issued by Father Francis Gulzar, vicar general of the Catholic Archdiocese of Lahore, stated that Archbishop of Lahore Sebastian Shaw and the church administration regretted the use of the church pulpit for political purposes, and vowed not to allow any such gathering inside churches in future.
“It has been decided that the church doors will always be open for prayer for everyone, however, the church platform will not be used for political purposes in future,” the statement said.
The statement went on to claim that the church had conceded to requests made by Senator Michael, Minister Khalil Tahir Sindhu and MPA Shakeel Ivan that Maryam Nawaz wanted to visit the church for special prayers for her mother.
The church statement further claims that it was unanimously agreed during the meeting with the three PML-N lawmakers that Maryam will speak about herself and her family members’ association with Christian schools. However, the apology implies that the clergy was taken by surprise when the former PM’s daughter started making political comments from the pulpit.
‘APOLOGY AN ATTEMPT TO PLACATE COMMUNITY’
Brig (r) Samson Simon Sharaf, a prominent Catholic and political activist, says that neither the church administration nor the PML-N’s representatives had anticipated such a furious reaction from the community.
Sharaf said the public apology is merely an attempt to calm the community as a large number of Catholics have written letters to the Vatican and the Ambassador of the Holy See in Pakistan demanding the sacking of Archbishop Sebastian for violating the constitution of the Catholic church by allowing political activity inside church premises.
“Why did the administration fail to anticipate any political activity even though election posters were pasted in the church compound by PML-N supporters well before Maryam’s arrival?” he asked, adding that it was a well-known fact that some senior members of the Catholic and Protestant clergies were colluding with the PML-N and other parties for power and clout.
Meanwhile, informed sources told Pakistan Today that before approaching the Catholic archbishop for holding the special gathering for Maryam, Senator Kamran Michael had tried to convince the Presbyterian and Anglican church bodies to arrange similar gatherings in churches that fall under the NA-120 constituency in a bid to appease Maryam Nawaz.
“Michael reportedly approached the Presbyterian church to host a programme for Maryam but they refused to comply with his wish,” said the source, adding that the senator then pleaded the newly installed bishop of Raiwind Diocese, Azad Marshall, to hold the gathering in the Praying Hands Cathedral on Waris Road, but he too refused to hold the political event in his church fearing public backlash.
“However, Bishop Marshall accepted Michael’s invitation to attend the event in the Sacred Heart Cathedral because of his close relations with the senator and other senior PML-N leaders,” the source said.
Shakeel Naz, an educationist, said that it was unfortunate that neither the bishops nor the lawmakers had asked Maryam to refrain from making political comments in the church.
“Even if we assume that Maryam was not asked beforehand to avoid making political comments, someone could have politely intervened when she began speaking on political issues. I’m sure she would have understood and complied with the instruction,” he said.
Pakistan Today made repeated attempts to contact Senator Kamran Michael and Punjab Minister Khalil Tahir Sindhu for their comments but they remained unavailable.