Pakistani bishop says Muslim-Christian tensions are deeply rooted and will not easily be resolved

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New York, September 8, 2009 -- A month after violence erupted against Christians in Pakistan, the Episcopal Bishop of Lahore has told church leaders in the United States that tensions between Christians and Muslims are not likely to subside any time soon.

"In this whole war on terror, Pakistan is a frontline partner with the United States," said the Rev. Dr. Alexander John Malik, who has been bishop of Lahore for 30 years, "but this has led to difficulties generated mostly by religious fanatics who have a mindset that all Westerners are Christian and all Christians are Westerners."

Bishop Malik is in the U.S. meeting with officials of the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church, with which the church in Lahore has ties, and with the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. Earlier he was in Canada to attend the wedding of his niece.

"Such a mindset creates problems for Christians in Pakistan and puts the church under pressure," he said.

Last month Muslim extremists reportedly set fire to 75 houses in a Christian community in the Faisalabad Diocese in Pakistan. Another Christian neighborhood was attacked after a false report that some Christians had desecrated the Holy Qur'an. Over a hundred houses were burned and at least seven people, including two children, burned to death.

The attacks were roundly condemned by Christian leaders around the world, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams. On August 3, Bishop Malik announced that all Christian educational institutions of the Roman Catholic Church and Church of Pakistan would be closed for three days "in condolence" in Karachi and Balochistan.

"Unfortunately, the (anti-Christian) mindset is not restricted to Pakistan but to the whole Arab-Muslim world," Bishop Malik said today in the National Council of Churches offices in New York. "It's the same from the Sudan to Somalia, from Iraq to Indonesia. This is the mindset of Muslims who consider their religion to be of the utmost importance."

Kinnamon said the 35 member communions that compose the National Council of Churches in the U.S. "are acutely aware of the pressure Christian minorities are under around the world and we stand in solidarity with all our sisters and brothers."

Bishop Malik agreed that the churches of the U.S. have been supportive, and that the NCC has engaged in interfaith dialogue to improve understanding between Christians and other faith groups.

"We have our own interfaith consultation in Lahore, but of course for us this is an everyday affair," he said. "We have occasional meetings with the mullahs so that we can come closer. We should be able to co-exist and agree to disagree."

Still, he suggested, there is no easy way to bridge the divide.