In Pakistan, 'living the faith is a new challenge every day'
"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 brutality of the act can hardly be surpassed: in
early November, a Christian couple was beaten and burned to death in the Indian
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 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 percent
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. He added that “to change this
situation for the better, however, all political and social powers have to work
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 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 collaboration of
priests and the faithful. He explained: “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 priests say Mass
celebrate at up to four meeting places in order to reach as many of the
faithful as possible.
ACN photo: Bishop Joseph Arshad