The brutality of the act can hardly be surpassed: in early November, a Christian couple was beaten and burnt to death in the West Pakistani province of Punjab. Both were in their early 30s, the wife was pregnant. The charge: desecration of the Koran. The background: Article 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, the so-called blasphemy law, which does more to promote than prevent the arbitrary use of power against persons of different faiths. The shocking act highlights the situation of minorities in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Bishop Joseph Arshad of Faisalabadin the north-western part of Pakistan is aware of the difficulties facing non-Muslims, and especially Christians, in his homeland every day. He confirmed this during a talk with employees of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN): “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, however, who took office in November 2013, does not want to accept this development. He is placing his hopes in young people, because more than a third of the 180 million inhabitants of Pakistan are younger than 15 years of age. Bishop Arshad said, “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. To change this situation for the better, however, all political and social powers have to work together.”
For this reason, the bishop feels it is important to maintain good relations with Muslim leaders. He added, “It is not easy for any young Pakistani, whether Muslim or Christian, to find work. The young people are depressed and those who can do so leave the country. Young Christians, moreover, are being discriminated against: this makes finding work even harder for them. To live the faith is a new challenge every day. But we are trying to give them strength and convince them to stay.”
According to the bishop, there are 60 Catholic schools in the diocese of Faisalabad. The majority of their approximately 30,000 students are Muslim, but many Christians also come to learn there. Going to school together should make it easier to live together, Bishop Arshad commented. There are also plans to reopen a technical school in the near future, which will include housing for those students who must travel from a distance. Currently, 185,000 Catholics live in the 23 parishes of the diocese and are cared for by 46 diocesan and religious priests. A key aspect of their 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, emphasised, “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 has been supporting the pastoral care in the diocese of Faisalabad for years. At the moment, the main focus lies on various building projects, the construction or repair of churches and chapels as well as the construction of housing for the catechists and pastors.
Reinhard Backes, email@example.com