Days of recollection and encounter for Catholic priests in Pakistan
Project Code: 328-04-79
"I am not afraid to speak the truth. I will have to die one day in any case. If I should have to die as a result of such a situation, then I am entirely at peace about it. The priests in our society have been given the prophetic role of speaking the truth." These were the words of a local priest in Pakistan, speaking to ACN, describing his willingness to keep the faith even in the face of the severe threats and harassment mark the life of clergy and other Christians in that country.
There are close to 190 million people living in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and the population is growing rapidly. As a result, even though there are some 1.2 million Catholics in the country, they make up only a tiny minority. And the Catholic priests in the country – just over 300 of them – often have to minister to vast areas of the country. At the same time, they face many enormous challenges. Threats from extremists are constantly increasing, and Christians are often victims of violence and false accusations of blasphemy. Even in normal everyday life they are exposed to all kinds of hostility and discrimination, and most belong to the poorest class of society.
Local faithful look to their priests not only for pastoral and spiritual support but also for help with every need. If an agricultural worker should die, after working as a bonded laborer for some wealthy landowner, his widow and children will often find themselves suddenly thrown out on the street, evicted by their landlord at a moment’s notice. Inevitably, they turn to the priest for help, as do the parents of sick children, the victims of violent attacks, and all the other needy and despairing people.
At the same time, the priests themselves often live in a state of constant tension. Most of them have at some time or other received threatening telephone calls and letters, and even some of the bishops have received letters demanding that they convert to Islam. Almost all of them have noticed that their telephones are tapped, and sometimes they have received strange telephone calls in which, for example, someone claims to be a Muslim wanting to convert to Christianity. If a priest should then say one false word, he can find himself in deep trouble.
Everywhere there is a climate of fear. One priest reports how he was threatened when some influential men from the Belutsh ethnic group occupied a piece of land belonging to a Catholic school. The priest attempted to resist the occupation and appealed to the government. But then he received threatening letters and phone calls warning him: "If you celebrate Mass, we will blow you up with a bomb!" He was at least given police protection, but even now, some years later, he still experiences a surge of fear when, for example, a motorcycle comes up too close to his car. Other priests have been threatened because they have stood up for the victims of injustice and persecution.
Father Emmanuel Parvez has received threatening phone calls because he is the cousin of the 42-year-old Catholic politician, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was murdered on March 2, 2011. This man, the former Minorities’ Minister, was gunned down in his car, close to his own home, by masked gunmen armed with machine guns. A Taliban-allied group has since claimed responsibility for the killing. He was murdered for his opposition to the so-called blasphemy laws. Just three weeks after his death, the Pakistani bishops' conference submitted an official request to the Vatican to include him in the list of the "Martyrs of the Universal Church." Since his death, many members of his family have been threatened and forced to leave the country. But Father Emmanuel Parvez himself is staying with his people, for he says, "It is better to be a martyr than a refugee."
In the face of such challenges, the Pakistani bishops' conference is trying to ensure that these priests can meet together at regular intervals in order to support and strengthen one another in a spirit of mutual brotherhood, to share their experiences, deepen their theological understanding and gain new insights for their own religious life, so that they can then return, spiritually strengthened, to their people. Their vision is for all the priests from all over Pakistan to be able to meet together once every five years shared spiritual recollection and mutual encounter.
This has not always been possible, but it is hoped that this year the priests of the country will be able to gather together again. They will spend five days together, praying together, listening to talks and lectures and sharing their experiences. But for many of the priests working across the length and breadth of this vast country that means a long and expensive journey. In addition the priests have to be housed and fed.
It is expected that 220 or so priests will take part in the five-day meeting. The Pakistani bishops' conference has turned to ACN for help, and we have promised them $18,700. This works out to just $85 per priest – a very small amount, yet one that can open up a rich source of strength to an individual priest and strengthen him once again to resume his arduous service and commit his life to God and to his people.
Will you give to provide days of recollection and encounter for these Catholic priests in Pakistan who may one day be martyred for their faith? We are sure they will remember you in their grateful prayers.
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