Ministering to a Muslin Environment

We Paulist fathers run a parish on the outskirts of Lahore, in an area called Asif Town, close to Juhana Abad, where live the densest concentration of Christians in all Pakistan. The word ‘Town’ is a misnomer by western standards, for it is anything but! It is still common to find buffaloes tethered outside houses, for example. Pakistan is Muslim state, and the Christians amount to just under 5% in a population of 220 million people.

As pastors, our main concern is the spiritual welfare of our Pakistani Christians. In Pakistan, the religion one is born into marks you for life. Your religion is also entered on your Identity Card and is an essential feature in any CV! One can imagine, therefore, the type of harassment faced by those who do not belong to mainstream religion of the land: Sunni Islam.

We are free to practice our faith and minister to our people. On Sundays, our churches are full; daily mass is much less attended. The families are reached by regular visits by the Parish catechists who are full-time diocesan employees. They can speak the people’s language and come to know each member of each family. The language barrier is very significant here. Urdu is the official language; but people speak their native language – in our case they speak Punjabi. Other regions have their own language: Sindhi, Balochi, etc.

There is a very strong devotion to the Fridays of Lent when the people attend very numerously. In Pakistan, life is very tough – and this is even more so for Christians who in their vast majority come from the lowest income earning strata of Pakistani society. Our people identify closely with our suffering Lord.

Prejudice can manifest itself is so many ways. Thus, our students complain that in public schools and higher educational institutions, they have to face so much scorn or isolation from peers and, at times, even from members of staff. Muslims will not do any work they consider as impure – just as public cleanliness, for example. Christians do these jobs and so, by association, Christians are mostly looked upon as dirty and people who never wash!

The Church in Pakistan invests very heavily in schools, which are held in high regard even by most Muslims as well. We also a run a High School for boys, which is open to Muslims as well, and we charge nominal monthly fees, ranging from € 1 to €5. But we do insist with our parents to send their children to school for the one way out of the vicious circle of poverty is through a sound education. The salaries of our teachers are paid from MSSP funds; monthly fees help cover running expenses.

We also run another major project. Our catechists, who know our Christian families well, identify those in need of medical and / or financial help. We have also employed a well-trained professional who then takes over from the catechists. He visits the families in need of help, and then advises us as to what needs are to be catered for. In most cases, he also accompanies these individuals to the medical consultants needed, and / or hospitals.
From time to time, we host groups of young people who come over for a ‘missionary experience’. In August 2018, a Maltese medical group came over, made up of three medical doctors, two fully qualified nurses [this includes Br David Pace, who has had extensive experience serving in the Casualty Dept at Mater Dei, plus ambulance service before joining the MSSP], a qualified chemist, and two teachers.

On the practical side, this required of us to find suitable places where the doctors could offer their services, find good translators to accompany them, and transport arrangements – all on a daily basis. The nun pictured belongs to the Maltese Dominicans, but is a local and trained as a nurse. She acted as a translator.

The picture above was taken at a village [printed on the ‘flex’ poster] where a large number of brick workers lived; these are modern bonded slaves who work long hours for a pittance in the attempt to pay off some debt to the landlord by manufacturing bricks . It is to be noted that these young people paid for their own trip, and they also collected some money so as to buy medicines to distribute to the people. They dedicated their annual leave to offer their services and come to Pakistan, which is no mean feat given that the 3 doctors are in government employ.

The people also prepared a stand-by generator in case the electricity supply was switched off; which it did. The funny side of it is that after some time, the generator also decided to call it a day. So the medical group spent the last 3 hours giving their service to the people who kept coming in a sweltering heat of 40+ degrees!!

Fr Gerard Bonello mssp, is a Maltese missionary currently based in Pakistan, where he is serving as the provincial superior of the MSSP community there.

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