The life of Catholics in Pakistan

Pakistani archbishop speaks of the faith and persecution of his people

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“It is a vibrant church,” Archbishop of Lahore, Sebastian Francis Shaw, OFM, who recently made a visit to Denver told the Denver Catholic, describing the Catholic community in Pakistan.

Lahore is the second biggest city in Pakistan, with a population of 11 million. It is also the largest diocese in the country, with 570,000 Catholics. In 2016, the city was the setting for one of the worst Jihadist attacks: a suicide bombing on Easter Sunday at Gulsan Iqab Park, leaving 78 dead and more than 300 injured.

In this country, which has a population of more than 190 million people, 96 percent of the people are Muslim, and less than one percent are Catholic. Catholics usually belong to the lower class, have fewer opportunities to be successful and are targets of persecution and threats.

Denver has a small Pakistani Catholic community, which received Archbishop Shaw with joy. He was able to celebrate a Mass with them in Urdu, the country’s official language, at St. Therese Parish in Aurora May 7, and even prayed a bilingual Rosary with them, accompanied by the Auxiliary Bishop of Denver Jorge Rodriguez.

“There are nearly two million Christians in the whole country,” Archbishop Shaw said. “For many centuries, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs have lived together.”

Nonetheless, after Sept. 11, 2001, “many difficulties came,” due to the fact that “Pakistani Christians are considered allies of the U.S. government.”

Victims

The archbishop highlighted the case of Asia Bibi, the Christian citizen who was sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy in 2009, for drinking out of a Muslim family’s water fountain, and supposedly blaspheming against Mohammed. She was vindicated but had to flee to Canada.

“Asia Bibi is only one of those cases, but there’s many more,” the prelate assured.

Archbishop Shaw talked about the story of Akash Bashir, a 20-year old young man who died in 2015 trying to stop a suicide bombing attack at St. John Parish in the Youhannabad Districts in Lahore.

“The young man took hold of this man and didn’t let go. The attacker pressed the button and [20] people died. He gave his life to prevent the attack and saved many who were in that church, which were around 1,200 or 1,300 people,” he said.

A young Church

What is most characteristic about Pakistani Christians is that “they love one another” and “they pray for their enemies,” something that surprises Pakistanis who practice other religions, according to Archbishop Shaw.

Young people make up 65 percent of the Christian population. There are also many young married couples with four or five children. “It’s always beautiful for the Church to have children,” the prelate said.

The Archdiocese of Lahore has 29 parishes, some of which have missions in more distant regions. There are currently 32 diocesan seminarians and 27 religious communities in the archdiocese. Due to the shortage of priests, there are many lay people who are catechists and are very dedicated to the faith.

Pakistani Catholics are a vibrant minority, and even though they are seen as second-class citizens, they have a strong faith, and many are even willing to give up their life for it. Above all, they are full of love for their neighbors.

“It is our duty to love one another regardless what origin or religion the person is,” Archbishop Shaw said. “If our neighbors are Christians, Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, it is our duty to love the other person because it is a commandment.”

COMING UP: Church and state partner to carry out corporal works of mercy during pandemic and beyond

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In times of great need and crisis, we find strength in unity and collaboration, and amid the coronavirus pandemic, this truth remains within the Archdiocese of Denver.

For many years, the Archdiocese of Denver and local Colorado government officials have found ways to work together toward common goals and better serve the people of Colorado, which often includes carrying out corporal works of mercy such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. And through the COVID-19 pandemic, these partnerships continue to be a crucial part of Colorado’s and the Church’s response to those in need.

The City of Denver and the Archdiocese of Denver have a history of partnering to support people in need. During the pandemic, Mayor Michael B. Hancock and his administration have worked with the archdiocese to safeguard the homeless population and extend testing for COVID-19 to communities at higher risk of struggling with the virus.

“These types of true collaborative relationships really make the difference because you can call on your partners [and] you have established relationships that are built on trust and built on true engagement and true focus on a mutually agreed upon mission,” Mayor Hancock told the Denver Catholic. “Catholic Charities and the archdiocese have been just tremendous partners over the years with us.”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver told the Denver Catholic that “the Catholic Church is motivated to care for the poor and needy by Christ’s commandment to love one another as he loved us.

“The coronavirus pandemic,” he added, “has highlighted this important work and underscored the essential role the Catholic Church plays in fostering a society that upholds the God-given dignity of every person.

“It has been a blessing to be able to work with the City of Denver over many years to serve these vulnerable populations.”

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and the Archdiocese of Denver have partnered with Mayor Michael Hancock and the City of Denver in the past to better serve people in need, and they’ve continued those collaborative efforts through the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Catholic Charities)

Recently, on July 10 and July 23, Mayor Hancock and the City of Denver hosted events in partnership with Ascension Catholic Parish in Montbello to provide testing for COVID-19 and a mobile food pantry to the local community.

“We have been looking for opportunities to be in the communities, to do the testing, to meet people where they are. And we recognize that Latinos and African-Americans in particular have been most vulnerable to this virus,” Mayor Hancock said. “We needed to really just make sure we took the opportunities for testing to those communities.”

Then, on Aug. 6, Ascension hosted another event in collaboration with the City of Denver where the mayor’s office gave away free backpacks with school supplies, healthy food baskets, baby products, feminine hygiene products and more.

“I am very thankful for Mayor Hancock’s collaboration to help the people of Montbello,” said Father Dan Norick, pastor of Ascension Parish. “I also thank God for the people in Montbello who are caring for each other in these difficult times. May Jesus be praised!”

Mayor Hancock said that hosting these events at Ascension Parish made sense because of the established relationship the City of Denver and the Archdiocese of Denver have developed over the years.

“When you’re looking for who you partner with during these opportunities, you turn to who’s most familiar with you and who you’ve had a trusting collaboration with,” he said. “And it just so happens the archdiocese and the parish there have been the ones that we’ve worked with over the years. So it was very natural. It’s a place where people are familiar and a place they trust.”

It’s not only during the pandemic that this partnership has been fruitful, though. A strong partnership between Samaritan House and the city has existed for quite some time, and this relationship has borne much fruit over the years. Samaritan House strives to be more than a just a homeless shelter, providing education, life skills classes and one-on-one support for its residents to empower them to break free from the cycle of poverty and support themselves independently.

In August 2017, the City of Denver and Catholic Charities of Denver cut the ribbon on the first all-women’s shelter in the city. Called Samaritan House Women’s Shelter, it follows Samaritan House’s established model of helping those experiencing hard times find a way out of poverty and ultimately, bring hope to their lives. Each night, it offers 225 beds for women who are in need of immediate shelter.

Back in April, Catholic Charities teamed up with the City of Denver and took the lead on an auxiliary women’s shelter set up at the Denver Coliseum. (Photo by Catholic Charities)

Back in April, in response to the pandemic and out of a need to maintain social distancing protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the City of Denver and Catholic Charities of Denver partnered to set up the Denver Coliseum as a 24/7 auxiliary emergency women’s shelter that’s that was able to accommodate up to 300 women. Catholic Charities staff took the lead at the shelter with full support from the City of Denver. The auxiliary shelter has since returned to the regular women’s shelter facility, but this collaboration between the city and Catholic Charities was crucial as cases of COVID-19 climbed in April.

“When the pandemic hit, Catholic Charities had to find a way to social distance the ladies in its Women’s Emergency Shelter,” said Mike Sinnett, Vice President of Shelters and Community Outreach. “We also had to provide them 24/7 care to honor the governor’s Stay-at-Home order and triage for the virus. Working with the City of Denver staff, we came together as a shelter community and obtained the use of the Denver Coliseum downtown. We were able to better provide social distancing, 24/7 shelter with three meals a day and other amenities, including showers and case management.

“We believe this effort with the city protected our most vulnerable community and helped prevent the spread of the virus. But more importantly, we made it safer for women experiencing homelessness during this pandemic.”

Featured image: Father Dan Norick hands out supplies during a community giveaway event hosted at Ascension Catholic Parish in Montbello in conjunction with the City of Denver. (Photo provided)