On 6 January 2024, Chairman of Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari arrived at the residence of Pastor Anwar Fazal, who is Chairman Isaac TV Eternal Life Church and one of Pakistan's most prominent televangelist preachers. Here, they addressed a press conference directly from Eternal Life Church and the Pastor promised to support PPP.
Just after two days, on 8 January, Deputy Secretary General of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and former Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Interior and Legal Affairs Attaullah Tarar met with Pastor Anwar Fazal in a Wednesday Prayer Meeting at Eternal Life Church and asked people to support him. This move of the top-tier leadership of the two largest political parties in the country ignited a heated discussion on social media. The opinions expressed by both Christian and Muslim netizens reflected a range of perspectives on the involvement of church leaders in politics.
Christian netizens argued that “church leaders should stay away from politics,” emphasising the separation of church and political turfs. Akash Naar wrote that “politics should be outside the church” while Jamshed M Sahotra stressed that “Let the church remain the church, don't make it any political arena”. Asher Soni noted that “Isaac TV is a political headquarter.” Asif Ghouri ask as to “why Christians feel honoured to invite such Muslims to their worship places.” Nevertheless, Moon Razi cautioned that “if Eternal Life Ministries had kept worship, then it would not have a decline.”
While challenging the credibility and integrity of church leaders, some netizens suggested that they can leverage their influence to address the minority issues. Others expressed skepticism, arguing that some church leaders may prioritize personal interests over political consciousness. Shazaib Bhatti suggested to Pastor Fazal that “we vote for PPP if Bilawal Bhutto guarantees us that no Christian village in Pakistan shall be burnt in the future” whereas Qaisar Masih lamented that “church leaders don't have political consciousness. They have personal interests. This (Pastor Fazal) is the Maulana of Christians.”
The conversation on social media also delved into the potential impact of such interactions. Muslim social media user Adv Zubaida Malik wrote, “They are among the hypocrites and it is not for anyone but their own interest” while Muhammad Zarrar Yousuf posted and Khwaja Zia Siddiqui reposted two photos of Pastor Anwar Fazal, one with Chairman Bilawal and the other with DS Attaullah Tarar with a caption: “These are two pictures of Lahore NA 127.
A picture four days ago in which Pastor Anwar Fazal offered flowers to Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari candidate Constituency NA 127 Pakistan Peoples’ Party and expressed good wishes for him. The second picture is taken a day ago in which Pastor Anwar Fazal offered flowers and wishes to Atta Tarar candidate NA-127 Muslim League N and the lawyer of the murderers of Ms. Benazir Bhutto. Now the question is whether it is beneficial or harmful for the chairman to visit the houses of such shopkeepers. Isn't it necessary to do a complete screening test of such people before it?”
Building on this conversation, the primary consideration revolves around determining whether church leaders ought to interact with candidates from various political parties who are seeking votes. Certainly, a church leader's involvement in political activities is evidently shaped by factors such as the policies of the church, the leader's personal convictions, and adherence to local regulations. Depending on these variables, some church leaders may opt to interact with candidates as a form of community engagement, while others may choose a neutral stance to prevent potential political influence within the religious environment. Nevertheless, it is indispensable to pay significant attention to comprehending the dynamics of church leaders’ involvement in politics in Pakistan.
A plethora of research has been conducted worldwide to investigate the impact of religious institutions on political mobilization within communities shaped by diverse political histories and socio-cultural contexts across various countries (Jamal, 2005; Schlozman, & Brady, 1995; Calhoun-Brown, 1996; Jones-Correa & Leal, 2001; Tate, 1993; Wuthnow, 1999). A body of literature elucidates that churches can effectively involve their members in politics by providing opportunities to generate resources, fostering civic skills, and inspiring participation in political processes.
Notably, churchgoers in the United States exhibit a higher likelihood of engagement in political activities (Verba et al., 1995). A compelling example is Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist pastor, who leveraged his religious authority and church structures to mobilize Black Baptists, garnering significant spiritual and political support for the American civil rights movement. Similarly, the late Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, a remarkable evangelizer, condemned a dictator's regime and criticized oppressive government policies. Despite facing heavy press censorship, he kept his followers informed about the truth through weekly radio broadcasts, ultimately succumbing to assassination.
While exploring the political participation of church leaders in Pakistan, we find them in both their roles as representatives and as voters for expressing their opinion to influence the decisions that affect their lives. In 1988, Bishop Rufin Julius ran for national general election and won seat of National Assembly of Pakistan on reserved seats for minorities under separate electorate system. First indigenous Roman Catholic Bishop Dr. John Joseph Shaheed was not only a tireless campaigner for joint electorate system in Pakistan but he also went on a public hunger strike to protest against the inclusion of religious column in national identity cards in 1992, which he believed would promote the divisive tendencies in Pakistani society.
Likewise, Bishop Alexander John Malik who called separate electorates as ‘apartheid electorates’ causing division in the society relentlessly demanded the government to abolish separate electorates till the restoration of joint electorate system in 2002. Numerous other instances also exist in the history of Pakistan. This stipulates that the role of church leaders in political participation goes beyond casting a vote and can encompass various forms of engagement, including representation and advocacy.
According to Sawer (2010), “Participation in electoral processes involves much more than just voting. Political participation derives from the freedom to speak out, assemble and associate; the ability to take part in the conduct of public affairs; and the opportunity to register as a candidate, to campaign, to be elected and to hold office at all levels of government.” Indeed, the United Nations’ definition of political participation provides a comprehensive framework that goes beyond the act of voting and embraces various facets of engagement in the political process.
Within the sphere of church leaders in Pakistan, this definition offers clarity regarding the breadth of their potential roles in politics to meet the expectations of churchgoers. The political participation of church leaders in Pakistan can take various pathways, influenced by the socio-political context of the country and in comply with local laws and regulations governing political participation.
- First church leaders possess the liberty to voice their opinions on political and social matters. They can leverage their platforms to articulate moral viewpoints, champion justice, and address issues pertinent to their communities.
- Second, the right to assembly enables church leaders to convene their congregations for discussions, forums, or events centered around political and civic engagement. This has the potential to cultivate a sense of community and a collective understanding of crucial issues.
- Third, church leaders can associate with political figures, community leaders, and human rights advocacy organizations to collaborate on initiatives that align with their values. This may involve partnerships aimed at addressing social justice, human rights, and other issues.
- Fourth, church leaders can engage in political campaigns, advocating for specific causes, candidates, or policies. They can mobilize their congregations to actively participate in electoral processes and contribute to shaping the political landscape.
- Lastly, church leaders can explore the opportunity to register as candidates in electoral processes. This allows them to directly participate in the democratic governance of their regions.
Although the involvement of Pakistani church leaders in politics has the potential for positive results, it is crucial for them to approach these roles with a strong sense of responsibility, ethical awareness, and a recognition of the diverse viewpoints within their congregations.
Furthermore, striking a balance between religious and political duties is essential to uphold the principles of the separation of church and state observed in many societies. Pakistani Church leaders may draw inspiration from historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., who effectively integrated their religious roles with political participation. This inspiration can encourage constructive actions.