Lifestyle & Belief

Christians keeping the faith in Pakistan despite 'intimidation and violence'

LAHORE, Pakistan — It was a strange, almost jarring sight to see a group of adults chatting and sipping tea outside in the broad, muggy daylight last Sunday morning. The fasting month of Ramadan – or Ramzan as it is known here in Pakistan – is well underway, which means that even in Lahore, a city famous for its food, public eating and drinking, has come to a halt during daylight hours. Ever since former President Zia ul-Haq’s 1981 Ehtram-e-Ramzan (respect for Ramadan) Ordinance, even the country’s non-Muslim minority population is expected to refrain from public consumption.

But hidden inside the heavily guarded grounds of the Cathedral Church of the Resurrection in central Lahore, Pakistani families and a handful of foreigners gathered around a table of biscuits after the end of the Anglican service. Rajil Joshua, a restaurant manager, tells me that his family has been attending services at the Cathedral for over 80 years.

“Coming here is a tradition within my family,” he explains, noting that his grandfather attended the same English service throughout his entire life.

Last week, the Pakistan Religious Violence Project, an initiative of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, published a grim report on the deteriorating human rights situation for religious minorities in Pakistan, who only make up about 3 percent of the country’s predominantly Muslim population. From January 2012 to June 2013, the project compiled and catalogued all publicly recorded attacks on religious minorities, including torture, rape, and shootings. Over the 18 months, at least 11 Christians were confirmed killed and 36 injured, though the report authors note the real numbers are likely higher.

In spite of these sobering statistics, over the past few weeks, every church service I attended in Lahore was packed, from Catholic mass at the grand Sacred Heart Cathedral to Presbyterian worship at the more austere St. Andrew’s Church. Over and over again, I encountered the same attitude: people are aware of the risks of being a Christian in Pakistan, but they choose to go attend the services anyway.

Pervez Petrais, a security guard at St. Andrew’s, takes comfort in the fact that the church is in a safe part of town, located close to the heavily fortified Lahore High Court and the office of Punjab Province’s Accountant General. In the 15 years he has been there, the church has not been attacked, though he quickly adds, “we still must be careful.”

Ravi Khokhar, an employee at a health care technology company, tells me that there are usually more than 150 people at the church’s Urdu service on Sundays, which definitely fills the modest, mid-19th century structure. Sharon Rahmat Ullah, a branch manager at a bank, steps outside during the sermon with his son who is getting fussy in the heat. He beams when he looks at his toddler, who is part of the fourth generation of Ullah’s family to come to St. Andrew’s.

Christianity on the Indian subcontinent dates back centuries, but many of the Christian communities throughout Pakistan were established during the British colonial rule beginning in 1849. Almost 100 years later, in August 1947, the British departure gave birth to two countries: Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India.

Although this made the Islamic Republic of Pakistan a religious endeavor from the beginning, there is evidence that early leaders did not intend for the country to be a strict theocracy. In an oft-cited speech, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah said: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

However, Jinnah died shortly after Pakistani independence and before the country’s relationship between church and state was formalized. Ever since, many of Pakistan’s politicians have acted at the expense of religious minorities in order to shore up support from conservative Islamic organizations.

Today, the outlook for Christians in Pakistan remains bleak. In the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s most recent annual report, the authors write: “Nothing during [2012] suggested that Pakistan had made any headway in ridding itself of pervasive intolerance that undermined the freedom of religious belief and found expression in ever increasing incidents of intimidation and violence against religious and sectarian minorities.”

In March 2013, thousands of people attacked a Christian neighborhood in Lahore after a sanitation worker was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. In June, a young Christian girl acquitted of blasphemy last September had to flee Pakistan for Canada due to safety concerns, and three Christian women in Lahore were beaten and forced to parade naked through the streets.

When I raise these incidents with Irfan Barkat, a practicing Catholic who has been working for the Archdiocese of Lahore since 2010, he explains that dealing with the threats and harassment is just a difficult part of everyday life. “We receive regular anonymous calls, so we set up check posts and cameras,” he says. I count five security guards on the Cathedral grounds and four police officers outside of the gate. Men are screened with security wands before they enter the actual building.

As a longtime employee of Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace, Barkat is quick to stress that the human rights situation must be improved for all marginalized Pakistanis, not just the Catholics. At this point, George Eziokwo, a Nigerian congregant, chimes in: “In Pakistan there is one mindset – take action against the minorities.”

George and his wife Fely make a point to attend the 8 a.m. mass every Sunday, but they still feel uneasy here in Pakistan. “When you land in Nigeria, there is a sign at the airport that says, “'Welcome,' and we actually mean it,” George sighs.

“But people still love to come to church and they have strong faith,” Barkat adds. He notes that the current bishop “has a good interaction with the people,” which has increased recent attendance even more. The cathedral has a seating capacity of 700, but Barkat estimates they have around 900 people at the Urdu mass each week.

At first I struggled to believe him, but when I attended the service the following week, by the time things got going it was, indeed, standing room only. Christian or Muslim, Catholic or Protestant, in Pakistan punctuality is always a fluid concept. People continued to flock in, touching the holy water and crossing themselves, long after the bishop had processed to the front, which he did without shoes. The singing was loud, as it was at all the services, and the moments of silence very still.

As I prepared to leave the Anglican Cathedral last Sunday, I paused for a swig of water before returning to the dry streets of Lahore and began chatting with a high school teacher named Promila, a regular churchgoer. She said that the discrimination against Christians troubled and saddened her, but she did not have any plans to stop attending services.

“It all depends on your own commitment,” she said. “If you want to come, nothing will stop you.”