Pakistan’s year of the Catholic martyr, same old upheavals
Nation at 75 continues to struggle with political, economic instability and institutionalized discrimination
A memorial to Akash Bashir in front of St. John’s Catholic Church in Youhanabad, Lahore. Bashir stopped a suicide bomber from entering the church and died when the terrorist detonated his bomb. Bashir’s action saved the lives of many people who were in the church at the time. (Photo from ucanews.com)
As this year of political unrest and natural disasters draws to a close in Pakistan, the churches have moved closer to mainstream society and made their voices heard in the country.
The year started with a bang when Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore announced on January 31 that the Vatican had accepted Akash Bashir as a servant of God, paving the way for him to become the Islamic Republic’s first saint.
The diocesan inquiry for his beatification and canonization, which began on March 15, continues in an orderly and formal manner. The tribunal, including the Promoter of Justice and the notary, interviewed witnesses seeking specific information about Bashir’s life and ordeal.
Bashir, a Salesian alumnus, became a martyr when he stopped a suicide bomber from entering a packed St. John’s Catholic Church in Lahore, the Punjab capital, in 2015.
Not much has changed for Pakistan’s religious minorities since then. The family of Pastor William Siraj, from Peshawar, capital of northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, is preparing to spend their first Christmas without the 70-year-old, who was shot dead after Sunday prayers on January 30.
The Church of Pakistan constantly complains about everyday institutional and societal discrimination. Covid-19 may fizzle out, but a pandemic of forced conversions of underage minority girls continues while the government is in denial mode.
At least 100 reported cases of kidnapping, forced faith conversions and forced marriages of girls and women belonging to the Christian community across Pakistan were reported between January 2019 and October 2022, according to a Conversion without Consent report released by the rights group. Voice for Justice and Anniversary Campaign on December 10, Human Rights Day.
Last week the minaret of an Ahmadi place of worship in Gujranwala’s Baghbanpura area was removed. The demolition was carried out despite the fact that sheet steel around the minaret, hiding it from the public, was placed by building management.
Around 800 Jews are being forced to live secretly as Parsis in Pakistan, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel, in order to initiate public dialogue with Jewish leaders.
“Opinion makers, including religious leaders and teachers, need to embrace positive narratives to counter rising intolerance and hate speech against minorities. Marginalized groups need to be included in the policies and decision-making processes that affect them,” said Bishop Indrias Rehmat of Faisalabad.
Surprisingly, the third quarter of 2022 brought a bundle of joy to both the church and society.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery celebrated their Platinum Jubilee in Pakistan this July in Quetta, a town on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. September also saw the closing ceremony of the Islamabad-Rawalpindi Diocese’s Platinum Jubilee.
More broadly, the entire nation celebrated its diamond jubilee in August – 75 years of independence.
The celebrations were short-lived, however, as record-breaking monsoon rains, likely exacerbated by global warming, flooded a third of Pakistan’s territory, struggling 33 million people and damaging the economy by an estimated $40 billion. About 20 million are still living in dire conditions as winter sets in.
According to several reports, the floods from June to October killed at least 1,750 people.
Caritas Pakistan, with the support of international and local groups, has provided life-saving assistance to flood-affected families, particularly in remote areas, reaching nearly 13,100 families so far. The charity plans to reach 5,000 more people affected by the floods over the next few months and begin the rehabilitation phase.
It was a far cry from previous summers when farmers and political activists protested severe water shortages in various cities in southern Sindh province.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid, the floods are currently spread across 11 districts of Sindh and two districts of Balochistan.
Meanwhile, former Finance Minister Miftah Ismail has revealed that Pakistan’s default risk has increased. The country’s inflation rate rose to 26.6 percent in October from 23.2 percent in September. It now ranks 19th among the countries with the highest rates of inflation.
According to Father Qaiser Feroz, executive secretary of the Pakistan Bishops’ Commission on Social Communications, the situation has slipped out of the hands of economists and politicians.
“Flooding, followed by rampant prices for basic commodities, particularly vegetables, will lead to increased problems including street crime and unemployment,” he said.
More than seven decades after its founding, the polarized nation continues to grapple with political instability and tensions linked to institutionalized discrimination based on religion, sect and ethnicity.
The year saw the departure of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who openly opposed General (Retired) Qamar Javed Bajwa, the former army chief. The changing of the guard must be a sign that the old ways of conducting affairs of state are changing. Only strong democracy and political will can guarantee the security of religious minorities.
The year ends with more good news from Pope Francis, who earlier this month appointed Father Yousaf Sohan, Vicar General of Multan, as bishop of that diocese.
Along with 1.3 million Pakistani Catholics, I thank the Holy Father for the New Year’s gift from the Servant of God and the Christmas gift from the new bishop. May this Christmas restore smiles in our adverse circumstances, amen!
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.