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Catholics forced to skip fasting in cash-strapped Pakistan

Economically weak, they are worse off this Lent struggling to survive amid severe inflation

Kanwal Rashid teaches her son at their home in Lahore on March 22

Kanwal Rashid teaches her son at their home in Lahore on March 22. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)

Published: March 31, 2023 09:34 AM GMT

Updated: March 31, 2023 10:01 AM GMT

None of the 10 Catholic families in a slum in Pakistan’s Lahore city were observing the Lenten fast when Sister Rubi Munir visited them last week.

The Good Shepherd nun, who works among them, wasn’t surprised. “Most poor are not even sure about the second meal of the day,” she exclaimed.

Thousands of poor Catholics across Pakistan are unable to observe their lent traditions of abstention and day-long fasting as they struggle to survive amid severe inflation in a country hit by an economic crisis.

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“Poor people have hardly anything to eat. How can you expect them to fast for the entire day,” she asked.

Kanwal Rashid, a Catholic woman in the slum, said she observed dawn-to-dust fasting for 13 days this Lent season but discontinued following pain in her back muscles.

Ramadan fast shapes Lent 

Catholics in the Muslim-majority nation traditionally spend the whole day without food and drink from dawn to dusk for a month during the Lent period. They break the fast by eating in the evening just as Muslims do during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began on March 23 this year.

The Catholic custom of abstaining from meat during Lent remains irrelevant to families like that of Rashid as they could afford meat only on Sundays and feast days, the nun said.

Pakistani Catholics do not have any homogeneous Lent observations in terms of abstention and fasting. Some people still do the dawn-to-dusk fasting for a month, some do it for two weeks and some for a few days.

Rashid’s husband, a devout Catholic, observed a complete month of dawn-to-dusk fasting last year. But he could not do it this year because of the need to take up additional work to make ends meet in tough economic times.

Catholics in Rashid’s slum are engaged in menial jobs at the nearby government-run Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, named after the iconic Hindu engineer and philanthropist considered the "father of modern Lahore."

However, there is nothing modern about their quarters — also named after him — that stand in a row of 26 cramped flats overlooking an inner alley littered with heaps of rubbish and broken furniture strewn around.

Crisis means less food for poor 

Sister Munir, on her weekly visits, usually tries to convince them to send their children to Sunday school or invite the women for skills training while occasionally helping them with groceries and free tuition.

However, this week she is spreading the word about free wheat flour that is being made available at government distribution points during the holy month of Ramadan in inflation-hit Pakistan.

“The free flour can feed these poor in difficult times. The Lent charity too has dropped by fifty percent this year. We have limits too as Church funding from Europe has dried up,” Sister Munir said.

A political and constitutional crisis has gripped the country since last April after former prime minister, Imran Khan, was ousted by a no-confidence vote.

The economic crisis forced Pakistan to increase taxes and energy prices and allow its currency to weaken to restart the long-awaited loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund that would revive the stalled $6.5 billion bailout program for the cash-strapped, nuclear-armed country of 220 million people.

This February, the annual inflation on food shot up to more than 40 percent. The higher taxes and fuel costs meant poor families like that of Rashid need to find extra work.

For example, Rashid’s husband now works as a part-time tailor after returning from his regular job in a hostel where works.

Such families are reluctant to spend the whole day at distribution points waiting for their share of free flour.

The tragedy of free food

Like millions of low-income families across the country Catholic families like Rashid’s are also registered under the scheme.

Rashid, a Catholic mother of three, is eligible for three bags of wheat flour, each weighing 10 kilograms, under the relief package but isn’t venturing out to fetch them.

“It is difficult to stand in long queues. It’s a painful process,” she says recalling her experience of waiting endlessly to collect free sugar distributed similarly.

Their reluctance proved a blessing. As hundreds rushed for free flour in several places,  a stampede killed one person and injured eight others on the first day of Ramadan in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Elsewhere, at least 10 people, most of them women, have died and several have been injured or fainted trying to get the free flour so far.

Rashid would want to avoid such tragedies, even if it means being hungry, she said.

Her husband, even with the extra work, barely earns a monthly salary of about 25,000 rupees (US$88), which is woefully low with inflation at a nearly 50-year-high in the country.

Rashid, a 30-year-old homemaker, says she’d rather keep the ritual of dawn-to-dusk fasting. People like her break it by taking a pinch of salt on her tongue followed by a glass of water.

“That’s how I’ve observed Lent since childhood,” Rashid says.

"Storm of troubles" 

Sister Munir is aware of the tradition of breaking fast with salt which is unique to Catholics in Punjab province.

Rashid finds it hard to perform daily household chores on an empty stomach. “We’re already saving the best food for our kids,” she explained.

“Everyone is depressed in the debt-laden country, but the economically weak Catholics are worse off this Lent,” confirmed Bishop Samson Shukardin of Hyderabad.

The prelate described the situation in Pakistan as “the perfect storm of troubles.”

“An economic crisis, a catastrophic flood, and increasing terrorism have placed the poor in a perpetual state of fasting,” he added.

Every year, Pakistan's Catholic Church marks Lent with fund-raising to help the poor and destitute including widows, the sick and disabled people.

But, as Shukardin said, the efforts were woefully short to provide any relief to a suffering population.

Noor Kamran, an 11-year-old Catholic, kept to two days of fasting this Lent seeking good health for her mother, who is suffering from anemia and has been advised by her physician to eat more fruit.

Her family lives in the Ganga Ram quarters allotted to her grandmother, who washed dishes at a hostel for medical students at the nearby medical school.

Kamran said she wants to observe the dawn-to-dusk fast for 10 days this Lent season, as she did last year. During her fasts, she prays to facilitate good education.


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