ICC Note: Pope Francis has elevated Pakistan’s Joseph Coutts to become one of 14 newly appointed cardinals. For many Christians in Pakistan, this elevation of a Pakistani Christians has inspired hope for their community. Known for his interfaith work in Pakistan, many Christians hope Cardinal Coutts will be able to bring more attention to the severe persecution and discrimination faced by Pakistani Christians.
06/29/2018 Pakistan (Bonner County Daily) – Pope Francis will create 14 cardinals on June 29, among them Pakistan’s Joseph Coutts, currently the archbishop of Karachi. What might come as a surprise to some people is that Pakistan, though a Majority-Muslim country, is home to some 2.5 million Christians, approximately half of whom are Roman Catholics.
As my research as a scholar of global religions shows, most of Pakistan’s Christians have an unusual history.
Most Christians in Pakistan, including Catholics, owe their religious affiliation to the activities of missionary societies during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the Punjab region of what was then British-ruled India.
Early evangelization efforts by both the British and Americans in India focused on upper-caste Hindus. The assumption was that these Hindus would use their influence to convert members of the lower castes. This approach led to few converts. However, in the late 19th century, American missionaries changed course and began to baptize Hindus from the sweeper caste.
Hindus from this caste are traditionally assigned jobs considered “polluting,” such as skinning animals, removing the bodies of the unclaimed dead, and cleaning toilets. The missionaries’ new approach proved successful, in part because conversion to Christianity offered hope of escape from Hinduism’s caste system.
When the British left the Indian subcontinent in 1947, they carved territory out of India to create the new country of Pakistan for Muslims, who were a minority in India. The region of Punjab, where most Christians lived, became part of Pakistan.
The majority of Christians chose to remain in Pakistan. They believed that they would fare better there because Islam rejects social divisions on theological grounds.
In practice, after the creation of Pakistan, not much changed economically or socially for the Christians who stayed: The caste system continued to exist in the new country.
Even today, most Pakistani Christians living in major cities are consigned to sanitation jobs and a life of poverty. In Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar, for example, as many as 80 percent of Christians are sanitation workers. In another of its major cities, Lahore, Christians account for 6,000 out of 7,894 sanitation workers.
Newspaper ads for sanitation jobs, including by government agencies, frequently call for non-Muslims. One of Asia’s Catholic news agencies, UCANews, reported that in May 2017, the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation issued a call for 450 sanitation workers, offering contracts that required employees to be non-Muslim and to take this oath: “I swear by my faith that I will only work in the position of a sanitary worker and not refuse any work.”
Consigned to a low social hierarchy, poverty among Christians remains widespread. A 2012 survey in Lahore reported by the watchdog organization, Minority Voices, found that the average monthly income of Christian families was US$138, a per-capita daily income of US$0.92, which is well below the poverty line defined by the World Bank. In contrast, during the same year, the average monthly income for all Pakistanis was US$255.
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