Laborers renovate Christopher Javaid’s small Lahore restaurant in Lahore in November 2018. He was forced to close the restaurant because his Christian name drove customers away. (Photo supplied)
Christopher Javaid made his first foray into the restaurant business last November, opening a new place in Lahore. It was closed after one month.
The eatery served breakfast and put on a barbecue in the evening. Javaid himself used to cook the chicken. Most of the recipes were handed down by his grandfather, who had been a chef for more than a decade at Lahore Gymkhana, one of the oldest golf clubs in the country.
Prospects were bright when the new place attracted more than 100 customers on opening day but it was all downhill from then on.
“My Christian name drove away the customers, most of them Muslims,” the 31-year-old told ucanews. “The locals treated us as if we were illegal occupants. The owner of the adjacent tea shop refused to supply tea, only agreeing only after we organized our own kettles and cups.”
He finally decided to close the doors after hearing comments from an elderly woman. “It was six in the morning. A boy had ordered some naan [flat bread] when she questioned him purchasing from an Isai [Christian] shop,” said Javaid.
The father of two is now deep in debt. He secured loans totaling 50,000 rupees (US$318) to finance the whole set-up, including two rented rooms and a tandoor (clay oven). He ended up selling everything for just 40,000 rupees. He is presently seeking assistance from a Christian charity in Lahore which offers small business loans in easy-to-pay installments.
“There is no profit in food business for religious minorities,” Javaid added. “Christians can’t slaughter chickens because we do not recite the kalma [the Muslim vow of faith.] Many have faced fatwas [religious edicts] for not following the halal method.”
Church leaders say discriminatory treatment is routinely meted out to Christians, who face lack of employment opportunities and poor access to education despite their contributions toward defence and welfare. Government and army advertisements often offer only menial employment to Christians — for example, sanitation jobs — a stance that horrifies the minority community.
Last week the photographs of a discriminatory notice in a residential building in Karachi went viral on social media. “Selling or renting any apartment in this building to non-Muslims is prohibited,” read the flyer.
In a landmark ruling in 2014, the Supreme Court of Pakistan mandated a quota system for religious minorities in the Muslim-majority country. The judgment ruled that 5 percent of government jobs must be set aside for religious minorities. In truth, however, less than 2 percent of non-Muslims apply for these jobs, according to Ijaz Alam Augustine, minister for human rights and minority affairs in Punjab province.
The provincial minister is coordinating with chambers of commerce countrywide to initiate skill development programs for tenth graders like Javaid.
The latest scheme is part of a Minorities’ Empowerment Package introduced by the government. “Besides finding jobs for skilled experts, we also provide grants to youths to help them start their own businesses. Still, education is the greatest platform to advance our community,” said Ijaz.
Forced to pretend
However, the deputy director of Lahore’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Munib Akram, was not sure if there was a single non-Muslim among its 25,000 members. He also declined to comment on the situation facing Christian businessmen in the country.
Human rights organizations claim non-Muslim businessmen are forced to survive by hiding their identity. These include Salman Peter, who was more cautious when founding Wali Enterprises, a Lahore-based construction company, in 2014. “I named it after my grandfather. The title also gave me a Muslim cover,” he said.
Peter avoids sharing his surname when negotiating contracts with Muslims. In 2017, he had to hide his faith to build a three-story structure in Jamia Ashrafia, a religious educational institution.
“They only knew me as Salman. It is easier to work with Shia clients, who welcome us in their homes. However, we prefer to work with dioceses to avoid any discrimination.”
Christy Munir, professor emeritus at Forman’s Christian FC College, claims 70 percent of Christians in Lahore city are engaged in menial jobs, including cleaners and laborers.
“The solution is education for business. Limited resources and fear of failure restrain our community from initiating their own enterprises. The challenge is finding a way forward that ensures how local leaders can contribute,” he said.
Pakistan Business Community (PBC), a group of Lahore-based educationists and NGO leaders, has been holding Six-Day Kingdom Business Training workshops for Christian men and women entrepreneurs over the last year. Forman Christian College (A Chartered University) is already supporting the education of 900 non-Muslim students.
This is an effort to raise the economic status of the deprived religious minority by turning their ideas into opportunities, claims Munir, who is also a member of PBC.
“We introduce business as worship and spirituality in workplaces. This training is a platform for faith formation, fundraising, networking with chambers of commerce and building connections. The value-driven mentoring will produce alumni as transmitters of the kingdom of God in the market place,” he said.
“We are planning to incorporate study material from foreign institutes in follow-up events and support start-ups toward self-sustaining business models. The goal is to strengthen the networking of future businessmen and women, thus expanding the talent pool of the Pakistani Christian community.”