Mindful mothers foster Catholic faith in Pakistan

Catholic Parveen Bibi's life is an example of how poor Christian mothers contribute to the Church's growth in Pakistan

Kamran Chaudhry, Lahore

Updated: June 21, 2022 01:06 PM GMT

'I will remain faithful to the house of God till death. My faith is a gift from my ancestors,' says Parveen Bibi.

Nadeem Masih was taking a nap on a hot summer afternoon in 2020 when his mother woke him up to remind him that he was supposed to repair the damaged roof of the local Catholic church.

A month had passed since the old wooden beams had caved in under the weight of tiles and Parveen Bibi hadn't been able to sleep thinking about it.

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I couldn't refuse her, said Nadeem, a school dropout who worked as a laborer, loading vegetables and hay bundles at the truck stop on the outskirts of their village, Qila Natha Singh, around 80 kilometers from Lahore.

The 20-year-old decided to forsake his meager daily earnings of 500 rupees (US$2.69) and joined his mother to begin the repair work at the church.

Sacks full of potatoes grown in Qila Natha Singh village in Pakistan's Punjab province.

We started by removing the old cracked beams. The villagers joined us later, Nadeem told UCA News. We would get up at five in the morning and start laboring after a quick breakfast of leftovers from the previous night's meal or make do with eggs from our hen pen.

Putting food on the table was a difficult task as Nadeem had forsaken his daily wages during the couple of weeks it took to restore the church roof.

But for 51-year-old Parveen Bibi it was a small sacrifice she and her son were making for the sake of their faith and the local church community comprising of some 25 Catholic families, most of them farmers and laborers, living in a Muslim-majority village.

For them, the church located on a street behind their house was not a mere place of worship but the Biblical rock upon which the Christian faith had been built over a century or so in Punjab province.

Parveen Bibi (right) with parishioners at the Catholic church of Qila Natha Singh village.

Qila Natha Singh, named after a prominent Sikh resident in the pre-independence era, is located close to Pakistan's border with India in the province of Punjab, which houses four-fifths of the country's Christian population.

Most Punjabi Christians are unskilled, landless rural fols with little or no education. There is a lot of poverty here, Parveen said.

Around 1909, Catholic missionaries joined their Protestant counterparts in encouraging Punjabi Christians to settle as tenants and peasants in these vast tracts of land.

The Catholic Church and Methodist Church set up around 20 villages in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to bring together scattered local converts in order to improve their socioeconomic conditions, according to historical accounts.

Laborer families clean the dirt off potatoes in Qila Natha Singh village.

Most of these model villages are located in Kasur, Khanewal, Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Sheikhupura districts and were able to provide decent living conditions to a few thousand Christian converts.

Yet most of the native Christians remained dependent on the Sikh and Muslim landlords, working for them as hired hands.

Like her fellow religionists, Parveen Bibi's family also worked in the fields. Even if you did not want to work, they would take you anyway, she recalled.

Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal records the turn of events from 1850 through to decolonization and the partition years in her book, Self and Sovereignty, albeit from a Muslim-centric perspective. In their dress, poor economic status and religious beliefs, Christians in the Punjab were closer to the Muslims, she wrote.

They had nothing in common except their faith with the educated Christian professionals, mostly Anglo-Indians, Goans and native elite converts who lived in big cities such as Karachi and Lahore.

Punjabi Christians were always treated with contempt due to their caste background and dark skin. They are called chuhras, a Punjabi derogatory word that connotes dark skin, low social status and untouchability.

Parveen Bibi removes dried dung cakes from the front wall of her house.

Faced with social, cultural, economic and political isolation, along with rising security threats, these poor Christians had little to fall back on other than their religion and physical labor.

A majority of them still work as bricklayers. Relative to their percentage of the total population, a high proportion of bonded brick kiln workers in Punjab are Christians, noted a recent report by New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The first and only Catholic church in Qila Natha Singh was built in the 1990s by a Belgian Capuchin missionary, Father Jerome, who also founded Kasur Parish, one of the oldest in Lahore Archdiocese.

The Christian community living in Kasur and its surrounding area are simple, devoted Catholics very strong in their faith.

In Qila Natha Singh, they look forward to visits by the catechist from Lahore Archdiocese who goes there to celebrate weekly Sunday Mass.

Parveen understands the importance of the catechist's weekly visits more than others of her own family or faith, plus the need to maintain the church.  In 2019, she even spearheaded a campaign to raise the church walls to ensure privacy during worship.

Parveen Bibi cleans the Catholic calendar with her dupatta (long scarf) at her house.

They were only four feet high. We went door to door and pooled 40,000 rupees [$216] to raise the walls to eight feet, she recalled.

Parveen's engagement with church activities often compels her to skip essential household chores like making cow dung cakes with her wrinkled hands and pasting them on the exterior brick wall to dry, to be used as fuel for cooking.

There is little doubt that she stands firm in her faith and is ready to make a few sacrifices. I will remain faithful to the house of God till death. My faith is a gift from my ancestors, she told UCA News.

A regular churchgoer who never failed to cover her head with a dupatta (long scarf), Parveen would be accompanied by her four children at church. But her daughters eventually got married and left the household.

Two of her daughters were married to Protestant men as she couldn't find suitable grooms in Qila Natha Singh. Most of the male Catholic youth in the village were engaged in menial jobs.

They were arranged marriages and Parveen is happy her daughters married men chosen by the family. My daughters are married into Protestant families but I want my grandchildren to learn Catholic traditions, get higher education, become officers and serve the church, she said .

Whenever her daughters visit her, Parveen ensures the six grandchildren accompany her for the hour-long prayers at the church.

She had arrived as a newlywed in Qila Natha Singh a few years before the construction of the 1,089-square-foot church.

She recalls how the village was segregated between Christians and Muslims with separate community ponds to fill water for their daily needs.

My in-laws told me to avoid the Muslim pond, she recalled. The separate water ponds were abandoned once piped water was introduced in the village.

Parveen still prepares breakfast for her family using twigs and dried dung cakes as fuel to feed the clay stove. She also feeds the cattle tied under a straw shed outside her house. Inside, potatoes lie piled up at the corner of her store. 

Sharifa Bibi cleans the mud hay rack of her cattle in Qila Natha Singh village.

Nobody sleeps on an empty stomach in our area. Potatoes, the main crop of Punjab, are readily available. You only have to request the farm owner, she said.

Meat is bought and served on the rare occasions when her daughters visit or her husband brings home his monthly earnings.

Village life is hard but we love the clean air, fresh vegetables and pure milk, she said.

The family still recall the special meals when the children received the sacrament of confirmation, an annual celebration in the village. Our family traveled to Kasur city to attend the bishop's prayer. The children wore newly stitched shalwar kameez [traditional tunics with pleated trousers] for the confirmation. We were so happy, Parveen recalled.

Despite her faith, the mother in her has a few regrets in life. We couldn't afford good education for our four children. Both my daughters could study only up to the fourth grade, she said.

A laborer stitches a potato sack in Qila Natha Singh village.

The social status of Christians hasn't improved over a century or so. The local Muslim barbers won't cut the hair or shave the beards of Christian men. Many still avoid eating or drinking with Christians.

The objective to raise their economic profile remains a distant dream as very few Christians own any land.

Parveen wants that to change in her lifetime and hopes to see her grandchildren get good jobs. Those who migrated from the villages to Lahore are working as nurses and teachers or doing clerical jobs in government offices.

Every year the Church celebrates Mother's Day to honor its mothers and grandmothers like Parveen Bibi, who are called in front of the altar to be blessed and offered garlands. 

As Father Bonnie Mendes, former regional coordinator for Caritas Asia, put it: Mothers have always been important in South Asian homes. In some places she would even be known as the queen of the home. Even in a patriarchal society like Pakistan, it is well acknowledged that mothers give their children a good upbringing.

Laborers fill potato sacks in Qila Natha Singh village.

Father Inayat Bernard, the chaplain of Caritas Pakistan, observed that mothers in the villages are the most influential when it comes to promoting church work or assisting catechists and the priest.

The husbands are out at work and they have little time to spend with the kids. The women take care of everything — from household needs to spiritual needs, he said.

Father Bernard, who worked in Kasur district until 2005, recalled the times when there were no cellphones. The mothers in the villages would tell stories at night to their kids. Though illiterate, they did share their faith, which is very strong, with the kids. They made sure the kids were dressed properly and reached the church on time, he said.

The greatest hope for the Catholic faith in Pakistan is mothers like Parveen Bibi.

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