In Pakistan, ‘living the faith is a new challenge every day’

A young girl lights a candle at a Marian grotto in Pakistan. Credit: Magdalena Wolnik. Source Catholic News Agency

 Reinhard Backes

.- The brutality of the act can hardly be surpassed: in early November, a Christian couple was beaten and burned to death in the Pakistani province of Punjab.

Both were in their early 30s, the wife was pregnant. The charge: desecration of the Quran. The background: Article 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, the blasphemy law, which does more to promote than prevent the arbitrary use of power against persons of different religions.

The act put the spotlight on the situation of minorities in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Bishop Joseph Arshad of Faisalabad, in north-western Pakistan, makes no bones about the difficulties facing non-Muslims, and especially Christians, each every day. He told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: “The influence of the fundamentalists has grown immeasurably over the past few years. Anything can happen at any time. For this reason, many fellow countrymen who do want change choose to remain silent.”

Bishop Arshad is placing his hopes in young people: more than a third of the 180 million Pakistanis are younger than 15.  

“Sixty per cent of Pakistanis are illiterate. We can make a change through education. In doing so, we also want to reach those who are not able to go to school. Our country has few very rich and very many poor people.”

“What is missing is a middle class” as a force of moderation, the prelate said, adding that “to change this situation for the better, however, all political and social powers have to work together.”

For one thing, the bishop feels it is important to maintain good relations with Muslim leaders.

“It is not easy for any young Pakistani, whether Muslim or Christian, to find work. Young people get depressed and those who are able, leave the country. Young Christians, moreover, are being discriminated against: this makes finding work even harder. To live the faith is a new challenge every day. But we are trying to give them strength and convince them to stay,” the bishop explained.

There are 60 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Faisalabad. The majority of their approximately 30,000 students are Muslim. Christians and Muslims going to school together should make it easier to live together, the bishop said. There are also plans to reopen a technical school in the near future, which will include housing for students who live far away.

Currently, 185,000 Catholics live in the 23 parishes of the diocese. They are ministered to by 46 diocesan and religious priests. A key aspect of the Church’s work is providing pastoral care to families and young people. Bishop Arshad, who comes from Lahore, where he also studied journalism as a young priest, emphasized that “preaching is important. Those who receive a good education are able to live the faith, even in a difficult environment.”

Bishop Arshad is apparently undaunted by complex tasks. Before Pope Francis sent him to Faisalabad, he served in the diplomatic service of the Vatican. In the diocese, the 50-year-old places all of his hopes in the cohesion of priests and the faithful.

“In the parishes, which can encompass up to 150 villages, the pastors are supported in their work by six to seven catechists; some villages see the pastor only once a year. The catechists receive a salary so that they can devote themselves fully to their tasks. Each catechist is responsible for about 20 villages.”

Every Sunday the pastors celebrate the Eucharist at three to four meeting places in order to reach as many of the faithful as possible.

Aid to the Church in Need supports the Faisalabad diocese, largely through building projects, including the construction or repair of churches and chapels, as well as construction of housing for priests and for catechists.

Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN) www.acnmalta.org (Malta)

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