I’ve never had the privilege of meeting Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the Head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, but by all accounts he is a learned and spiritual man. His comments yesterday criticising British aid policy to Pakistan therefore need serious reflection.
The Cardinal is reported as saying:
To increase aid to the Pakistan Government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy. Pressure should now be put on the government of Pakistan and the governments of the Arab world as well, to ensure that religious freedom is upheld.
Following the recent murder of Shabaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Catholic Minister for Religious Minorities, the Cardinal’s comments are entirely understandable. They reflect the deep seated and widely felt dismay at the perilous position experienced by Pakistan’s Christian community. Today’s report in the Guardian that a Christian fighting blasphemy conviction has died in a Pakistani jail only heightens the sense of disquiet. No one would seriously disagree that Pakistan’s Government shouldn’t be doing more to ensure that religious freedom is upheld.
It is another thing entirely though to advocate that Britain’s aid to Pakistan should be conditional on such efforts or that Britain’s failure to do so is somehow tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy. It is unclear whether the Cardinal’s frustration got the better of him or whether these comments reflect his considered position and that of the Church he leads.
To attach such religious conditionality at a time when Pakistan is at serious and imminent risk of becoming a failed state makes little sense. The priority at this particular moment must surely be to help the government of Pakistan starve of collapse. Building peace and stability accross the region and making democracy stick by improving good governance and strengthening democratic principles and the rule of law is core to this task. A Pakistan that descends further into chaos threatens everyone not least Pakistan’s Christian minority.