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ICC Note:

In an interview with Bishop Sebastian Francis Shah, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Lahore, Aid to the Church in Need reveals the life and hardships of a Christian in Pakistan.

4/30/2012 Pakistan (Aid to the Church in Need) – Pakistan is a country with a population of 160 million of which 95% are Muslim and Christians constitute a little less than 3% of the total population. The rise of militant Islam over the last years has given cause for concern where Christians feel insecure if not outright fearful. The Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan has repeatedly asked the government of Pakistan to act in defence of the religious minorities. Some of these bishops have indicated that a genuine martyrdom is taking place. Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need interviews the Bishop Sebastian Francis Shah, O.F.M – Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Lahore.

Q) Your Excellency, you were born in a Christian village in the province of Sindh. Is it normal in Pakistan to divide villages according to religious affiliation?

A) Yes, I think one of the purposes is that Christians are a minority; being a minority we want to profess our faith, pray and practice our faith with freedom therefore, all the missionaries brought the people together into villages. The land was bought and given to the people so they could be more independent. They had businesses and schools and the church for worship. That was the purpose. We are integrated within our neighbouring villages but it is just only so that you have greater freedom to worship.

Q) When did you have your first experience of God?

A) My father died when I was very young. The [Dutch] Franciscan Fathers and Franciscan sisters from Malta were working in my village and they were all working tirelessly for the youth, for the development of the people, for the school children and to take care of the animals when they would get sick. I was very much inspired by them. My mother also told us many stories about saints and she always told me when I was an altar boy that an altar boy is like an angel; serving Father, the priest who replaces Jesus. He was like another Jesus and so being an altar boy is like an angel. It was from there that I developed the idea to become a missionary. My mother often told me the story of St. Sebastian who was martyred. So at that early age I was already thinking that someday, maybe, I will dedicate my life to the Church.

Q) Your Excellency, the Christians in Pakistan are a minority, less than 3% of the total population. How would you see your relationship with your Muslim compatriots?

A) In day-to-day life, Christians and a Muslims work together. It is not a problem. We certainly feel that we are a minority but at the same time, we feel that we too are Pakistanis. We are all Pakistanis. The problem occurs when a religious group creates some problems; for instance, in certain remote areas where an Imam preaches a biased teaching. But otherwise, even when I was in school where the majority of the students were Muslims, we were good friends. We would exchange information about Jesus, the Bible, The Prophet and the Koran. There was never a problem. It is only very recently that we feel a problem surfacing in our inter-relationships with the Muslims and we have to be very careful. People working in offices never discuss religion, which is a very new development and that is perhaps a good thing.

Q) …that religion should not take part of the day to day?

A) … they [Muslim] and we [Christians] know that we are still friends. The problem is those groups that create problems and in certain villages, this is more apparent. In Sind, where I am from, or in Karachi, you will not find religious biases or if it does exist, it is minimal. In Punjab and the other side of Pakistan, religious biases are very apparent. In certain areas, though it is quite uncommon, at a hotel, for instance, if you are discovered to be a Christian and you have used a teacup, the attendant will either beat you or he will break the teacup.

Q) Why?

A) …because a Christian has touched the cup and the cup has been defiled; the cup should not be used again. In other words the cup has no right to exist, it is finished.

Q) How do international events impact on the Christian community in Pakistan?

A) One thing is very clear that we Pakistani Christians are considered allies of western culture. We are linked together which is not just. I was born in Pakistan. I am Pakistani. I will live and die in Pakistan. We and they [Muslims] should understand that Christianity is not just a western religion. Jesus Christ, after all, was from Asia and the Bible was written in Asia and so were the Gospels. So in this way we are Asians. The missionaries were of course from the West, from Europe, and Europe being a Christian continent, we are immediately associated with them, which is not true. Whenever something happens in Europe or America, we immediately feel the effects; we are persecuted. Events where a pastor in Florida threatens to burn the Koran, we were hoping that he would not do it. We were fearful; the Pakistani Bishops Conference wrote the Pakistani government assuring them that we were in solidarity with them and we wrote the US government, stating that we prayed it [the Koran burning] would not happen. I believe no person has the right to hurt the feelings, especially the religious feelings, of anyone because religion is sacred and is very dear to everyone.

Q) How do you evangelize in this kind of a context?

A) First, our mission is to be a witness to our Christian identity. In this way our evangelization is firstly with our faithful. We do not just evangelize the person but we feel that we have the responsibility to evangelize the whole society especially when there is injustice. We should help everybody through our schools and hospitals and other institutions. We try to bring the idea of truth and how society should be as well as the protection of human rights for everybody. People, certainly, although we are a minority, appreciate our efforts.

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