The life of Catholics in Pakistan

Pakistani archbishop speaks of the faith and persecution of his people

Avatar

“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: The shock of forgiveness

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Every so often, the media will pick up a story that serves as a potent reminder of what it means to be a Christian. That’s because living as a Christian in today’s post-Christian society is an unusual way of living, contrary to what the rest of society might say about it. It is not “outdated.” It is not “irrelevant.” It is radical, countercultural and, to some, even incomprehensible.

On Oct. 2, the trial of Amber Guyger came to a close. Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was charged with the murder of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old man who lived in the same apartment complex as Guyger. On Sept. 6, 2018, she walked into Jean’s apartment, thinking it was hers, saw Jean sitting there on the couch, and after giving verbal commands, shot him twice, killing him. It was an absolute tragedy and played into the ongoing national conversation about police behavior toward people of color (Guyger is white; Jean is black).

What I want to focus on is a particular moment that came at the end of Guyger’s trial, after she had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Jean’s younger brother Brandt took to the witness stand to address his brother’s killer directly. He wasn’t planning on saying anything during the trial but changed his mind at the last minute. A prompting of the Holy Spirit? I think yes, based on what happened next.

“I hope you go to God with all the guilt, all the bad things you may have done in the past,” Brandt told Guyger. “If you are truly sorry … I forgive you. If you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” He continued, “I’m not going to say I hope you die … I personally want the best for you … I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want … and the best would be: give your life to Christ. Giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.”

But it didn’t stop there. Brandt was bold enough to ask the judge if he had permission to give Guyger a hug. He was granted it, and they embraced for over a minute, Guyger weeping into Brandt’s shoulder, just as some of us might do were we to be embraced by Christ.

Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean hugs former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger after delivering his impact statement to her in Dallas, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Guyger has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her black neighbor in his apartment, which she said she mistook for her own unit one floor below. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Brandt has every reason to hate Guyger. This woman gunned down his innocent brother who had his whole life ahead of him and was given a lighter sentence than what she originally faced. Those in the courtroom and watching on TV wouldn’t have been shocked to hear Brandt tell Guyger that he hopes she rots in hell. No, the shock from those in the courtroom – and subsequently, the rest of the nation – came when Brandt did the exact opposite.

With those words and the simple act of embracing his brother’s killer, Brandt gave the world an incredible witness to the forgiveness Christ calls us to live as Christians. Of course, you can count on the bickering voices of social media and pundits to take this powerful moment and exploit it for their own agenda, but that’s because many of them don’t understand. It is not normal in our culture to forgive. It is also not easy. And that’s what makes witnessing something like this so shocking. It was not supposed to happen, but it did. It defied every expectation. Make no mistake about it: Brandt was living his call to be more like Christ in that moment. And it is exactly this moment – this shocking moment – that we are able to get a glimpse of what it is to be a Christian.

Following Jesus does make for quite a shock. And it is that shock that we are called to bring to the rest of the world, just as Brandt Jean did.