Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad (right) blessing the foundation stone of the center for peasents
Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad has laid the foundation stone for a new resource center for land tenants to boost their long struggle for ownership rights. “We shall always counter injustice and follow what our religions teach,” said the recently appointed head of the Catholic Church in Pakistan while blessing the foundation stone for the Association of Mazareen (tenants) Punjab (AMP) resource center on June 13 in Okara district. Villagers in 10 districts in Punjab province have been struggling to gain ownership rights on land since the country’s creation in 1947. Their dispute with authorities has been more acute since 1999 after discovering farm managers were illegally collecting cash on half of what they produced. Currently villagers are looking to gain ownership of 27,518 hectares of farmland. “The villagers are trying to get the land, which is very fertile. They have been arrested and beaten but continue to fight,” said Father James Archangelus, the parish priest of St. Anthony Church in Antoniabad, a village in Okara district. Their struggle has seen 14 peasants, one of them a young Catholic, killed in several clashes with security forces. Christians and Muslims hold joint memorial services for the “martyrs” every year. Christians make up 40 percent of the affected 1,000,000 tenants. The blessing of the new center came two months after Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani promised to resolve the land ownership issue. Younas Iqbal, the Catholic chairman of the AMP said the center will be a headquarters from which to mobilize the movement. “Twice we tried to open offices in cities but they were forced to close after a few months. We shall use this new center to organize meetings for farmer and women rights,” said Iqbal who was jailed for eight months in 2003 for leading protests. “Things are calm at present but we never know when trouble will brew,” he said.