How the besieged and persecuted Christians in Pakistan have to live without public display of religious piety and symbols.....




The great Mahatma Gandhi said: "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind."

Christian Crosses can't be displayed in Pakistan
Christians can't displayed the Cross in Pakistan

Intense hatred and intolerance towards other religious cultures and symbols will only help fostering of extremist views in other societies.

The ‘Cross’ is the most revered and sacred religious symbol in Christianity. In Pakistan, this emblem and the cherished relic of the Christian Faith has faded from the public eye down the years and is rarely seen in the humdrums of everyday Christian life today!

Being born and raised a devout Christian and a part of the country’s largest religious minority, the increasing invisibility of the Cross, despite its ascent about two decades ago, is unsettling to me.

From the memoirs of my childhood, right through to my teens, there was a time in Pakistan, when it was common to see the Cross pendants of various sizes and shapes dangling from the necks of young and old Christians alike, buzzing on every street corner. But now, that sight has sadly been reduced to mere rare glimpses in Karachi’s famous shopping bazaars, namely the Bohri Bazaar. It is mostly noticeable during the Christmas and Easter eve shopping, when Christian shoppers are busy shopping in large numbers. The decreasing visibility of the Cross over here underscores the challenges the Christian community is so harshly facing in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The Cross in Pakistan is now restricted to only a few architectural elements of church steeples, including on prominent monuments mostly of the bygone British Raj eras, which are left bare to rot away! Yet, many of such monuments in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have, virtually, been demolished or were/are ravaged by Muslim fanatics, who keep on demolishing or vandalizing the sacred relics of the Kafirs!

Indeed, in view of the recent religious violence, i.e. persecution of non-Muslims by Muslims, all over Pakistan, there is an even smaller fraction of people, whose faith hangs on a Cross on the rearview mirrors of their cars, more daring ones display their religious identities on the entrance doors of their homes—a sight that was, previously, common to see.

No more the Festive Days

The Christian Cross seems to be fast disappearing from the local jewelry shop-windows, too! When inquired about this change, Pakistani Christians voice concerns about their safety and security lest they invite ire of Muslim fanatics by displaying the Cross. Others, dubiously, ponder about their future in Pakistan, as the TTP (Theireeq-e-Talibaan Pakistan) are gains fast grounds for the eradication of Kafirs from the Islamic land of Pakistan!

“Not many people come to buy them here anymore. We have some old samples, but they are rarely requested for,” says Rafiq, whom I have known since childhood and owner of a small jewelry shop in Saddar in Karachi, my hometown. Rafiq’s family has been in this business for three generations.

The Churches, once adorned with decorative lights on festive occasions, are now accompanied by private security guards with scanners and metal detectors at the entrance, and are also being aided by the LEA (Law Enforcement Agency).

The Christian processions through the streets of Karachi before sunrise on Easter and at midnight on Christmas have stopped altogether. The Parish Priests of respective churches in the country feel frightened and keep low vigil services on the feast days. As many as 50 Muslim villagers armed with clubs and axes recently attacked a screening of the 'Jesus' film in Chak village near Sargodha, injuring three part-time evangelists and four Christians in attendance. Two of the evangelists were said to be seriously injured.

The Muslim hardliners also damaged a movie projector, burned reels of the film and absconded with the public address system and the donations from Christian viewers.

So, one can imagine what the Christian community is facing in Pakistan, such great dangers, and, as a result, they are slowly fading in these high times of Islamic Jihad. Even the Carol singers have vanished from Christian communities.

So are the Christmas decorations, which once adorned every Christian shop and home and seen on the streets and in the bazaars, and the colorful Christmas buntings that once decked the windows and balconies of every Christian, have all disappeared now! So too is Santa Claus, once the merry and joy of the children, as the Muslim goons/cops harass them!

At the Christmas and the New Year eve partying, once frequently held at homes or Five Star hotels all over Pakistan, are not allowed anymore. While the world brings in the New Year in style and extravaganzas, here in Pakistan, one can, unfortunately, hear only the loud aerial firings, emanating from every corner and homes of Muslim neighborhoods.

The Image of Salvation no more to be seen

The Cross, a symbol of salvation to Christians, is now seen only in a few photo exhibitions of churches, in famous Christian historical landmarks, or in the elite and well-cloistered galleries in the country. Stephan Andrew, a well-known photographer in Pakistan, admits that there are fewer opportunities to photograph the Cross in Pakistan now than ever before. For his first solo exhibition two months ago, Andrew had just one photograph capturing the Christian presence in this country—an image of the monument in Pakistan’s only Cathedral, the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral at Karachi. “Christians are hesitant to display their religious identities now! It is believed that, if you are a Christian, you are either associated with the Americans or a foreigner here,” adds Andrew.

Salman Chand, a Karachi-based banker, who is a part of the youthful social scene, says he doesn’t wear a Cross anymore for different reasons, as he put it:

“I’m not too keen on putting my faith on display; it is only because, I feel that the Cross is very sacred to me and it sometimes conflicts with my lifestyle. I don’t wear a Cross, only because I don’t want it to be disrespected or associated with things that my religion does not preach…”

Despite such reservations, young Christians do long for some acknowledgements of their faith in Islamic Pakistan. Andrew recounts a recent visit to Karachi’s Empress Market, where he came across some roadside shops selling Cross pendants on black threads.

“Perhaps it is more a style than any other sorts of religious declarations, but seeing the Crosses felt really good. It just shows some part of Pakistan is still very liberal and forthcoming,” he explains.

Indeed, many a Pakistani Christians continue to value the sacred symbolism of the Cross. Shallum Xavier, guitarist, composer and music producer of the Pakistani rock group FUZON, who wears a Cross pendant on his neck in his music videos, says that he does not wear it to represent his faith but because of what it signifies: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ!

“I wear the Cross, because of my memories from childhood. It is more of a personal thing to me. A big part of it is, because of my love for Jesus Christ,” says the pop celebrity.

The value of the Cross is more than anything to a Christian ever cherishes.

Meanwhile, Nabeel Dean, a senior sales and marketing manager in an insurance company, points out that it is not just Christians, who are scared of professing their identities in Pakistan.

“People from other castes (non-Muslim) are generally keeping a low profile. With sectarian violence on the rise and the internal clashes between various political parties, caste and religion automatically becomes explosive subjects here, and you never know what will offend whom?” he says.

Our Better days

In the years after Partition, Pakistani Christians used to have no qualms in displaying their religious identity in any forms. The community was confidence and self-assured. Between the 1950s and the early 1970s, the Pakistani Christian Community was respected members of the Pakistani society. They were patriotic citizens and qualified professionals, contributing as educationists, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, policing and even popular radio jockeys. Back then, the Pakistani society encouraged a dynamic mix of cultures, values, identities and religions... This congenial respect for diversity gave birth to relative acceptance for all minorities living in large neighbourhoods.

Before, Shallum Xavier and other contemporary Christian pop icons, including the legendary drummer Gumby, had to justify their regard for the Cross; the sounds of religious harmony were heard loud and clear across Pakistan.

In the late 1970s, the Benjamin Sisters, a minority singing sensation group formed by three sisters, Nerissa, Beena and Shabana, achieved immense popularity in both Pakistan and neighboring India. Their popularity began to be referred to as the “Benjamin Sisters Phenomenon”. In fact, the Benjamin Sisters symbolized what Jinnah’s inner dream of Pakistan was: singing patriotic national songs such as ‘Is parcham kay saye tale hum ek hai.’

Mass migration

However, the military ruler General Ziaul Haq’s wave of Islamization in the 1980s brought about a stark change in Pakistan’s social and political scenarios. The nation’s Christians, once one a highly regarded community, bore the brunt of these social transformations. Those, who were affluent enough, emigrated, while leaving behind the poorer majority of Pakistani Christians to make their peace with being regarded as second-class citizens in their own country of birth?

“The mass migration of Christians in the eighties explains the absence of the cross today,” says Minerva Rebecca, a human resources manager in a non-profit organization.

“There’s nobody around to wear it anymore,” she adds.

She also points out that the Christians, who remain in Pakistan, are socially marginalized and disenfranchised, and therefore, are not confident enough to display their religious identities.

“They’re not part of the higher social strata, for them to be seen at social gatherings, where the cross may ever be noticed,” says Rebecca.

Youhana’s conversion

Since mass migration of some Christians in the 1980s, the only overt display of the Cross in the 1990s could be seen when one tuned in to catch a cricket match. Yousuf Youhana, the third Pakistani batsmen to score more than 8,000 runs in Test cricket, made sign of the Cross after completing every century! With a Christian and a Hindu (Danish Kaneria), representing the ‘green’ and ‘white’ of the national flag, playing for the national team, those were truly proud moments for Pakistan’s Christians.

Christian Yousuf Youhana wedding
Convert Muhammad Yousuf
Pakistan: Great Christian cricketer Yousuf
Youhana converted to Islam for better
opportunity, captaincy for example.

In 2005, however, Pakistani Christians, who prayed so ever fervently for Youhana during every cricket match he played in, were disappointed with his conversion to Islam. Confused by rumors and controversies surrounding his conversion, young Christian boys, who looked up to Youhana for inspiration, felt let down badly. Now, we see him sporting a Sunnah of the Prophet Mohammad, the famous Beard shaven at the lips only. Now named Mohammed Yousuf, he is now captain of the national cricket team.

“He was my role model,” says my 14-year-old nephew Sean James, a student at St. Patrick’s High School in Karachi.

“Everyone is subjected to discriminations and at some point in their lives, whether it’s about religion or the way you look. I used to think if Yousuf Youhana didn’t succumb to the pressure, neither would I loathe him now,” I replied.

Owing to these setbacks, Pakistani Christians are now struggling hard to find a footing in Pakistani society. Majority are reduced to menial labour jobs; many are frequently subjected to forced conversions or are accused of desecrating the Quran, or are killed by the Muslim extremists all over Pakistan.

Pervaiz Masih, a friend who works at the CDGK (City District Government of Karachi), sweeps the streets and cleans the sewages of Karachi’s PECHS area. He admits to facing severe hardships of being a Christian in Pakistan.

“I had to change my name from Pervaiz Rehmat Bahadur to land this job. What does that tell you?” he asks me.

“I am not proud of doing it, but I have a family to feed,” he adds.

And I know how hard it is for him to earn a living. You are loathed and ridiculed to work as a sweeper or a garbage collector in Pakistan. The Christians and Hindus communities are mostly given these sorts of jobs, for they are considered to be filthy Kafirs in Islam?

In the evenings, however, when he is off duty and looks forward to a warm cup of tea with friends from the Christian community in Mehmoodabad-Karachi, where he lives. He finds the transition back to his faith a comforting one.

“With my friends, I will always be Pervaiz Rehmat Bahadur,” he adds cheerfully to me.

I marvel at his zest and honesty as a Christian.

The laws of the Islamic land

To a large extent, Pervaiz Masih’s insecurities about being openly Christian in Pakistan can be traced back to a single piece of legislature. Since the 1980s, Christians in Pakistan have increasingly become victims of humiliations and persecutions through false allegations made under the notoriously dreaded blasphemy law! Unfortunately, the Pakistani Penal Code (PPC) provides little guidance on what exactly constitutes blasphemy??? The law, a remnant of the 1860s British colonial criminal law, was revised in 1986 by General Ziaul Haq in accordance with the Islamic Shari’ah. In 1992, the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif revised it again, when death penalty was made mandatory for every convicted blasphemer.

In its earlier incarnation, the law applied equally to all religions! But in the revised version, the death penalty only applies to those, who blaspheme against Islam, especially the Kafiroon, a tool that is widely used against non-Muslims! According to a 2001 U.S. State Department report, entitled ‘International Religious Freedom’, 55 to 60 Christians living in Islamic countries are charged with blasphemy each year. Currently, more than a hundred thousand accused are languishing in Pakistani jails awaiting trials. Some have literally been held in prisons for decades, while waiting for hearings in courts.

At the Christmas Mass a week ago, the Rev. Fr. Joseph at St. Patrick’s Parish narrated in his sermon, of his recent visit to the Karachi Central Jail: “We went to say Mass for our Christian brothers and sister languishing there. It was sad though to come to know that some are innocent and have been there for nearly a decade. After Mass, the prisoners were crying out to us and begging us to come every Sundays and bless them and say Mass there”.

He said, “At Mass, the prisoners kissed the crucifix and said, ‘Father we have not seen the Cross in ages. We are not allowed to venerate the crucified Christ anymore and we feel that Christ is amongst us now and has forgiven our sins”.

He added: “It is a pity we cannot visit them often, as there are too many hurdles in taking permissions from the concerned authorities to say Mass every Sundays…”

Admittedly, the number of arrests under the blasphemy law has decreased since the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto approved two PPC amendments, designed to reduce the abuse of Section 295-C. Ex-president General Pervez Musharraf, too, suggested mild changes to the current blasphemy law in April 2000, but withdrew his recommendations the following month. As a result, the law remains largely intact and a fearsome tool for the many who know of its dreaded use!

Following his visit to riot-hit Gojra in August 2009, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani hinted at changing the blasphemy law in a bid to facilitate ‘religious harmony’ in the country. Moreover, there is an increasing acknowledgement that the blasphemy law is usually invoked in cases of political vendettas or rivalries or land disputes. Human rights activists continue to campaign for the law to be completely repealed.

Our Proud Religious Legacy…

The current position of Pakistani Christians is a sharp departure from their subcontinental legacies. Karachi and Rawalpindi saw the first churches in Pakistan, when Christianity was introduced in the region by British rulers in the late eighteenth century. St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi is considered to be Pakistan's largest church and the only cathedral and is the most prominent Christian landmark of the country. Most Christians who came to Pakistan were resident officers of the British Army and of the Indian government.

During the development of Karachi’s infrastructure, a large Catholic Goan Community was established by the British and the Irish before World War II. The Christians in Sindh and Punjab, particularly, had been active in pre-independence days in their support for Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League. Encouraged by the Quaid’s promise of complete equality of citizenship, they rendered their services as journalists and propagandists to the freedom movement.

In fact, the Christians did their best to contribute in a positive way to the society at large. For that reason, the cross in Pakistan has been mainly associated with education, Law, healthcare and philanthropy sectors. A large portion of Pakistan’s elite owe their success to a solid educational grounding at St. Patrick's High Schools (Boys & Girls) and Technical College, St. Paul’s High School, St. Peter’s High School, St. Lawrence’s Boys School, Trinity Methodist Girls Higher School & College, Jesus & Mary’s Convent School, St. Joseph's Convent School and College in Karachi and the Forman Christian College and St. Anthony’s High School in Lahore. Similarly, the Holy Family Hospital, Lady Dufferin’s Hospital, Darul-Sukoon (Mentally Retarded children), Ibtidah Gah (Drug Addicts Center), and the Marie Adelaide’s Leprosy Centre in Karachi, Marie Stopes Society and the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar were founded at a time when few healthcare facilities ever existed in Pakistan. All Christian institutions across the country portray a strong sense of nation building by rendering their invaluable services to the peoples and making of Pakistan, irrespective of caste, creed, and colour!!!

Being both a Christian and a Pakistani

In the context of the current unrest within Pakistan, as Islamic fundamentalism has flourished beyond proportions, Pakistani Christians find themselves in the midst of grave situations. The increasing frequency and brutalities of religious riots anger them verily. Yet, they remain optimistic about the future, which they hope will make things better. That hope is inspired by the very symbol that is attacked by Islamists in Pakistan, the cross, a symbol of strength, perseverance and endurance for the Christians and to all here.

“One day we hope to see a Pakistan, which will not differentiate between caste and creed, as was promised by the Quaid,” says Jennifer Marshall, an ESL trainer in Karachi. “We are hopeful because the cross symbolizes salvation for us”.

Meanwhile, the constant and firm demands for repealing the blasphemy law prove that Pakistani Christians are adamant to fight and keep their sacred symbol, the Cross, viable and visible in their country!

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