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A judge prays for the wisdom of Solomon

Jacob Isaac was caught in the middle. If he decided one way, his life was in jeopardy. If he went in the other direction, he was equally imperiled. He did the only thing he knew to do: He prayed to God.

A mild-mannered, self-effacing, studious man, Judge Isaac sits on the bench in a district court in Lahore, Pakistan. Lately he has been officiating exclusively over murder cases. During one trial his life was threatened by both the plaintiff and the defendant. He was also warned that his youngest son could be a target if he didn't decide ''rightly.'' Greatly troubled, the jurist asked the chief judge to remove him from the case. But his superior saw no suitable replacement.

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''I prayed and got my peace,'' Judge Isaac explains. ''Then I asked both parties if they wanted another judge. They said they did not. There were no more threats. And we resolved the matter quickly.''

Judge Isaac is here in Rome as a delegate to an interdenominational congress on religious liberties. He is speaking to this reporter between meetings, explaining his country's judicial system and how his reliance on religion and deep belief in God help him arrive at just decisions.

Prayer is a standard part of judicial preparation for Jacob Isaac. A convert to Christianity (he is a Presbyterian), the jurist - along with his wife and seven children - start and end each day with prayer. ''And I read the Bible before I start a case,'' Judge Isaac says. ''That way I feel free and easy to decide.... I depend greatly on divine guidance.''

As a Christian in a predominantly Muslim nation, Isaac is part of a less than 1 percent minority. In fact, all non-Muslims in Pakistan constitute less than 2 percent of the population. The jurist gets special dispensation to attend church on Sunday morning (not the Sabbath in Pakistan) and then returns to his judicial duties later in the day.

In Pakistan, a district and session judge may sit on both civil and criminal cases. The court system is based on Roman law, which stresses equity. There are, however, efforts to bring in ''sharia'' - traditional Islamic law, which leans on ''divine sanctions'' and interpretations of the Scripturesright word? by medieval jurists.

In Judge Isaac's court there is no jury. He alone must decide whether to jail or free a defendant - or even impose the death penalty. For this reason, the judge says he must couple his judicial knowledge and competence with prayers to be guided aright. He says a verse from Philippians gives him great strength and reassurance. It reads: ''I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me'' (Phil. 4:13).

Lahore is a city of nearly 4 million inhabitants - the capital of Punjab, one of Pakistan's four provinces. It's the country's largest urbanized area. And in recent years it has grown like Topsy (by a whopping 5 percent a year), attracting hundreds of thousands from surrounding rural communities. Poverty, slums, ''unauthorized construction,'' violent crime, and juvenile delinquency have attended this population burst.

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Judge Isaac's cases often result from crimes arising in family disputes - over land distribution, over seduction of women, over vendettas. He says ''poverty, lack of education, (and) use of drugs'' greatly contribute to a rising incidence of violent acts, including murder - particularly among youth. He is concerned over the breakdown of strong family ties and religious values.

Off the bench, the jurist has worked with land-reform groups ''to try to help people settle down.'' He says the government is starting now to tackle the drug problem. The use of heroin is common among many youths, he notes.

Judge Isaac says a top priority is the building of more technical schools to train unskilled youth for jobs. He advocates exchange programs with the United States, Britain, or both, to provide needed technical assistance for such an undertaking.

Isaac, with some moral compunctions, says he favors capital punishment for many murder offenses. He has imposed the death penalty several times ''where the charge has been fully proven.'' But he believes that education, land reform, and technical training will substantially cut down on the number of serious felonies.

But the real answer to reducing serious crime, Judge Isaac insists, lies in a commitment to spiritual values. ''Religion helps us grapple with (human) relationships, laws for the poor, the institution of marriage, the administration of justice for the poor, (questions) of peace and war - the rules of humanity,'' he says.

''Man-made laws are made for the betterment of people. But religion lays down rules, not only for individual action, but for society as a whole.''

A veteran of 10 years on the bench, Jacob Isaac started his career as an ''advocate.'' He previously served as a public prosecutor at the local level. He studied law for seven years in preparation for this. Of late, he has become particularly interested in the relationship between justice and religion.

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