Shafiq Masih is one among the thousands of Catholic sanitation workers who face discrimination and social exclusion within the Church and society in Pakistan. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry / UCA News)
Shafiq Masih, a 45-year-old Catholic in Pakistan, stood inside a manhole, half his body submerged in the dark slush of sewage. Someone asked him to look up, and the camera clicked. That photograph, published in several international publications, made him the face of sanitation workers in the Muslim-majority country.
“But it only deepened my seclusion within my own Catholic community,” laments Masih, who says he rarely goes to church because Catholics in his St. Paul’s Church in Lahore diocese “do not consider me part of their” community.
Masih is just one of the thousands of Catholic sanitation workers who face discrimination and social exclusion within the Church and society in Pakistan.
Masih says soon after his “work photo” was published in 2019 he became “sort of naked before the world.”
Shafiq Masih cleaning a manhole. (Photo: Sweepers are Heroes)
“My relatives cursed and hurled abuses. They accused me of revealing my identity and soiling their reputation. They cast me out of even funerals of dear ones,” he told UCA News with tears in his eyes.
“I never saw my friends after that. Some of them were friends from my childhood. My social circle has become very limited. Other Christians thought I was gifted with land, a house, and millions of rupees for posing for that photograph,” said the eighth-grade dropout.
Sanitation workers make up just 2 percent of Pakistan’s population of some 225 million. An estimated 80 percent of them are Christians. Catholics among them form roughly 25 percent of the population in three dioceses in the Punjab area — the Archdiocese of Lahore and the dioceses of Multan and Faisalabad.
In the caste-ridden social system of the Indian sub-continent, the outcastes — people outside the caste system — are destined to take up menial jobs such as cleaning and sweeping. Once considered untouchable, their social discrimination continues in Pakistan society, which is reflected in its Catholic communities too.
Shafiq Masih (right) attending a workshop by the Pakistan Workers Federation on Nov. 16, 2022. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry / UCA News)
Catholics without Church
The Majority of Catholic sanitation workers do not go to church even for Sunday Masses to avoid the scornful discrimination they would face, says Timotheus Yousaf, a sanitation worker like Masih.
Yousaf said his last Christmas Mass was in 2015 before he took up a cleaner’s job with a government-run hospital. It was also the first Christmas after his mother’s death.
Seven years ago, his family had a comfortable life from the income of his father, who worked in Dubai.
“My mother used to host dinners for the parish priest and catechist. They used to come and eat. But none have visited us since I became a sweeper. They have no connection with us now. Sadly, most Catholics keep us at a distance,” he told UCA News.
Yousaf spends his Sundays, just as on other days, operating a floor-cleaning machine at the Punjab Institute of Cardiology in Lahore with his co-workers — both Christians and Muslims.
“They don’t mind eating and sharing meals with us. But, sadly most of our own Christian brethren don’t treat us the same. They don’t share food with us. You can see the scorn in their eyes. We can only try to prove our worth with good cleaning,” Yousaf said.
Protestant Pastor Reverend Emanuel Khokhar, former dean of the Church of Pakistan's Raiwind diocese, admits that sanitation workers “are treated as second-class” Christians within all Christian denominations.
“In homes of rich Christians, the utensils for Christian maids are kept separate,” because it is considered polluting to use utensils used by men and women engaged in sanitation work.
“People do not even offer drinking water or tea in utensils they use. They will give us an empty bottle and pour water into it,” Joseph Masih, a sanitation workers union leader.
“This trend is especially strong with Christians living in posh localities. They offer us money to buy a water bottle instead of giving us a glass of water. The discrimination decreases with poor and lesser educated Christians,” Joseph Masih said.
Social humiliation keeps them away.
A Lahore Waste Management Corporation worker cleaning a road in Lahore, 2019. (Photo: Sweepers are Heroes)
Catholics engaged in sanitation work are rarely part of any parish or diocesan forums. For example, none of the Catholic cathedrals in the three dioceses of the Punjab area is known to have any sanitation workers on their parish committees.
Young Catholics from their families, who attend Church programs, often become cleaners and guards of the parish churches said some Catholic leaders seeking anonymity.
“When ignored in this manner, they move away to other churches,” said Sister Shakila Bhatti, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery, who work among families engaged in sanitation work.
“They expect more than monthly visits by a catechist, aimed at collecting a tithe,” said Sister Bhatti, regional coordinator of her congregation.
In 2015, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery became the first women’s religious congregation to initiate Holy Hour prayers with 20 Catholic families engaged in sanitation work at the Punjab Institute of Cardiology and Lahore Zoo.
Sister Bhatti said more Catholic groups should work with sanitation workers in Church activities.
Sister Shakila Bhatti CSJ (center) leads a Eucharist procession in the staff colony of Lahore Zoo. (Photo supplied)
Uncounted Catholics of Pakistan
The Catholic Church in Pakistan does not have specific data on Catholics engaged in sanitation work. Rough estimates say 90 percent of Pakistan’s 2.6 million Christians originate from poor castes, who are commonly called Chuhra (sweepers) in a disparaging tone.
At least half of Pakistani Christians are considered Catholics — estimated to be around 1.3 million. Considering that 90 percent are from poor castes, the number of such Catholics would be about 1.1 million.
Christian leaders assert that not all Catholics from lower castes are engaged in sanitation work. Those who have gained an education and found other jobs have moved on in life. They have also joined seminaries, and some of them have been ordained priests in several dioceses.
“But the educated and those in better positions, such as the Catholic priests, look down upon those from their own community engaged in sanitation work,” said one Christian leader.
“Although Christians generally face social discrimination, only those who continue to be engaged in sanitation work face discrimination within the Church,” he said.
The Catholic Church in Pakistan, just as in other countries of South Asia, likes to present an elitist, English-speaking face for itself because of its colonial past, he added.
“But that, unfortunately, meant masking its real face — the face of those who clean manholes, sweeps streets, and collect waste from homes,” said the Christian leader, who did not want to be identified.
For example, an estimated 35 percent of some 657,000 Catholics in Lahore and Faisalabad dioceses are full-time sanitation workers. Such people form half of some 80,000 Catholics in Multan. That is just three dioceses having some 270,000 Catholics engaged in sanitation work.
“The bishops should use the pulpit to sensitize churchgoers, especially those attending English masses, about sanitation workers because they are also part of the Church in Pakistan,” Joseph Masih, the union leader said.
Christians protest against the Sargodha Metropolitan Corporation in Oct. 2021 after the death of two Catholic sanitary workers in a sewer. (Photo: Sweepers are Heroes)
No programs for sanitation Workers
Punjabi Christians are mainly descendants of lower-caste Hindus converted during the British colonial era in India. Their social discrimination continues in society, although the government denies caste practices in Pakistani society.
Social scientists say for centuries, the Hindu upper castes subjugated them. Their communities in the Punjab area en masse accepted Christianity to escape the harsh treatment, hoping for equality and dignity.
For a long time, the Catholic Church in Pakistan was dominated by descendants of Christians from the western and southern parts of the subcontinent, who settled in what is now Pakistan of pre-independent British India.
“They spoke British English, wore Western dress, and behaved like their British masters. They had no reason to see local Punjabi Christians as their equals,” said the Church observer.
He said most bishops and priests in Pakistan belonged to this group in the decades after Pakistan became an independent nation in 1947.
“But they were also true missionaries. They worked to develop local communities including lower caste people. They began accepting local people into seminaries and educated lower caste people.
“But when local people began dominating the administration, they lost the missionary spirit. They ignore the lower caste people like sanitation workers.”
Currently, the Catholic Church in Pakistan has no developmental programs for Christian sewer men like Shafiq Masih, who cannot go to church and live in ghettos. Across Pakistan, only a few parishes hold Christmas or Easter programs for sanitation workers in their ghettos and present them with gifts like clothes, sweets, and money.
Multan diocese, through its Justice and Peace Commission, provides free legal assistance to hundreds of Christian sanitation workers. It also helped them form their unions across Punjab.
Caritas Pakistan used to hold awareness programs for sanitary workers in the coastal city of Karachi as part of an animation program, which ended in 2012.
Christians mourn the death of a Catholic sanitary worker in a sewer within the jurisdiction of Sargodha Metropolitan Corporation in Oct. 2021. (Photo: Sweepers are Heroes)
Poverty of education
Shafiq Masih agrees that education could have changed the lives of people like him but he says the social situation will not allow them to continue.
For example, his 17-year-old son Faiq Shafeeq loved to study but bullying forced him to drop out of school.
“One of my classmates saw the video of my father working and told others about it. They started sending me to the toilets to fetch balls that fell in there while playing cricket.
“One of them threw my notebooks into open sewage. They stopped having lunch with me. Despite complaints to the teacher, nothing happened. I was fed up and ended my studies,” said Shafeeq, who is now an apprentice learning to be a barber in a beauty salon.
“Our people have no facilities to study and change our lives. We neither have money to join mainstream educational facilities,” Shafeeq said.
The Catholic Church runs more than 500 schools, 8 colleges, and 7 technical institutes across Pakistan but the percentage of students from lower castes is much lower than the proportion of their population.
“Only a few Church-run schools offer fee discounts to children from such families,” according to Pastor Khokhar.
The absence of children of sanitation workers is evident in prestigious elite Catholic schools in cities. “It may be because a lower caste presence will result in others abandoning them,” said a Church observer.
Father Mario Angelo Rodrigues, dean of St. Patrick High School in Karachi, said Catholic sanitary workers and sewer men are not treated as equals within the community.
“Even Catholics will not want to shake hands with them or sit with them during Church service or have anything to do with them. It is a dilemma. Certain priests would refuse to take a glass of water from someone who cleans toilets. It is shocking,” he said.
Photo taken in 2019 shows a Lahore Waste Management Corporation worker holding a placard that reads “I am a human, not a trash can.” (Photo: Sweepers are Heroes)
The Church blames itself
The bias continues even with seminary students, claims Sabir Michael, a lay Dominican whose father was also a sanitary worker.
“We criticize the government and followers of the majority faith but the issues are graver at our end,” said Michael who has been teaching social sciences at Christ the King Major Seminary in Karachi as a visiting professor for four years.
“Catholics think of them as illiterate and drug addicts. Even seminarians of such backgrounds are treated differently. However, they forget everything when they become priests.”
Christian researcher Asif Aqeel said those with a background in sanitation work “continue living separately in ugly ghettos. They lack basic facilities such as toilets and running water. The situation of illegal slums [in which they live] is worse.”
“Those from sanitation families face difficulties being friends, getting employed, or getting married even within their community. This lack of respect is our most serious issue. Sadly we don’t support each other and refuse to recognize or treat sanitary workers as our siblings in faith and blood,” Aqeel said.
He said those who come out of those ghettos and seek employment would not identify themselves as sanitation workers. “There is an attempt to belong to a class higher than that of sanitation workers,” Aqeel added.
The Church leadership including “our bishops are silent on this issue and continue living in a dream world of their higher authority,” Aqeel told UCA News.
Father Bonnie Mendes, a former regional coordinator for Caritas Asia, agrees that “some within the clergy prefer not to work with them. They live in clusters so reaching out to them is fairly easy.”
However, he partly blames the stigmatized Christians. “Many want them to give up this dirty job and do some other work or small business but they continue to sweep especially if it is a government job that comes with housing as part of the compensation. They get a place to stay.”
Shafiq Masih gives the same intriguing expression seen in his photo: “I have no government home to live in and no Catholic friend. But I’m a Catholic, and for the world, I’m the face of sanitation workers in Pakistan."
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