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A year of challenges faces Pakistan Church

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A year of challenges faces Pakistan Church

Father Khalid Rehmat, custos of the Capuchins in Pakistan, has been named as the new vicar apostolic of Quetta in Balochistan province. (Photo supplied)

Joy was in the air when Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference inaugurated the Year of Youth 2020 in a colorful ceremony at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore. Then the world came to a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hope of a better year in 2021 dwindled after Sindh Health Department reported the first three cases of the new Covid-19 strain in the southern port city of Karachi. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s government has initiated a search for dozens of passengers who arrived in the northern province from Britain.

Pakistan is already grappling with the second wave of the novel coronavirus. It has registered 486,634 cases since the pandemic began, while the official death toll has risen to 10,311, according to Ministry of National Health data.

The deadly pathogen also affected Christmas celebrations, adding to the challenges of these unusual times. No churches hosted traditional fairs in their compounds. Most of them ignored social distancing during and especially at the end of Christmas Mass. Many attended these gatherings gripped in a mask amid fears of contracting the virus. Covid-19, instead of terrorism targeting religious feasts, was their greatest concern.

In Multan, the Cathedral of the Holy Redeemer Parish canceled Christmas festivities after Bishop Benny Mario Travas, chairman of Caritas Pakistan, isolated himself after he tested positive for Covid-19. Dancing and Bollywood songs were prohibited in the annual Christmas get-together at Caritas Pakistan’s national secretariat in Lahore.

"We are living in a time marked by loneliness during this pandemic period. But we believe that God never abandons his people and he is with us,” said Archbishop Evarist Pinto, archbishop emeritus of Karachi.

Just when it seemed like everything was bad news, Pope Francis surprised us all with a New Year gift of naming Father Khalid Rehmat, custos of the Capuchins in Pakistan, as the new vicar apostolic of Quetta in Balochistan province. 

The apostolic vicariate was vacant following the death of Sri Lankan Bishop Victor Gnanapragasam on Dec. 12. Congratulations to the Capuchins of Pakistan for their first Pakistani bishop. Congratulations to Lahore Archdiocese as well. Once again, it is a mark of the greatness of this eastern diocese to produce another bishop. 

Both Cardinal Joseph Coutts and the late Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan were ordained priests in Lahore. Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan, began his priestly education at St. Mary's Minor Seminary in Lahore. This grandmother archdiocese gave birth to Faisalabad and Multan dioceses.  

Bishop-elect Rehmat may not have lived in Pakistan’s most volatile province but his charism as a religious makes him a perfect fit for the missionary diocese. The mission of Quetta was given to the Oblates in 1982 by the southern Diocese of Hyderabad. It is important that as the Oblates leave this vicariate, it is taken up by another congregation. The new vicar apostolic will now face challenges of rugged mountainous terrain and long journeys to thinly populated communities. I wish him all the success in the world.

Controversial curriculum

New beginnings continue with the National Commission for Justice and Peace, the Catholic Church's human rights body in Pakistan, which has Bishop Samson Shukardin of Hyderabad as its new chairperson.

Besides continuing its work for the oppressed and marginalized communities, the commission now faces the new challenge of the highly debated Single National Curriculum (SNC).

New books based on the SNC will be introduced at the start of the new academic session. The syllabus will be introduced at primary level (prep to grade five) during the 2021 session. Provincial governments have been requested to start publication of books base on the new curriculum.

Sadly, it’s not the reform that educationists have been asking for. The new plan incorporates heavy Islamic content in the primary section and stipulates that every school and college must employ a certified hafiz (a person who has memorized the Quran) and a qari (a Quran reciter) to teach these subjects. The new policy will ensure jobs for 6,000 madrasa graduates, analysts say.

Catholic and liberal Muslim educationists in Pakistan have already rejected the plan and demanded a national education policy based on plurality, diversity and inclusiveness. 

Nabbing the NGOs

Funding restrictions could further cripple church agencies in Pakistan. The clampdown on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began after Pakistan was placed on a “gray list” in June 2018 by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, an inter-governmental body that combats money laundering, funding of terrorism and threats to the international financial system.

Last week Prime Minister Imran Khan ordered action against foreign-funded NGOs defaming Pakistan. The cabinet was informed that such organizations are promoting a foreign agenda and avoiding auditing funds and taxes.

Among all the religious minorities of Pakistan, the Christian community runs the most NGOs. Most of these organizations and ministers were born from the ashes of areas that witnessed war on local Christians. Many of them advocate for the rights of vulnerable groups including minorities and women. The restrictions will further impact these groups’ socioeconomic conditions.  

“Geopolitical changes will create further challenges for the local Church as Pakistan shifts towards a regional bloc of Russia, China, Turkey and Iran. We spent more than seven decades to build pressure from Europe and US in support of religious minorities. It won’t be effective now,” Sabir Michael, a Catholic member of the National Lobbying Delegation, told me.    

Despite everything, there is much to be thankful for. Pope Francis has already announced 2021 as a special year dedicated to the family, marking the fifth anniversary of the publication of his apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia. The pandemic has also taught us to spend time with our families and take some time to think about the kind of life we want afterwards. We can heal the world by improving our relationship within mankind and with our environment.

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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