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Christian concerns grow as Pakistan pushes digital census

Lack of awareness, education and poverty are blocking Christians from participating in the national census
Security personnel stand guard next to an official (center) from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, using a digital device to collect information from residents during the first-ever door-to-door digital national census in Bannu, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on March 14

Security personnel stand guard next to an official (center) from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, using a digital device to collect information from residents during the first-ever door-to-door digital national census in Bannu, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on March 14. (Photo: Karim Ullah / AFP)

Published: March 17, 2023 11:46 AM GMT

The disappointment on Daniel Massey’s face was an indicator of the lukewarm response from Pakistan’s minority Christians to the government’s first-ever digital population and housing census rolled out on March 1, with promises to be transparent and inclusive.

The massive undertaking aims to gather demographic data on every individual ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections. It is also expected to serve as an effective tool for planning measures for the socioeconomic development of the nation’s poor.

However, Christians don’t seem too enthused about participating in the latest self-enumeration campaign, says Massey, who is part of an ongoing campaign creating awareness among the minority community on the need of joining the online census.

The campaign is being conducted by the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), a Lahore-based research and advocacy group, amid concerns that Christians have been undercounted in the national census over the past two decades.

Government records show a steep decline in the Christian population during this period. According to the 2017 national census, Pakistan had 2.6 million Christians who form just 1.27 percent of its 207 million people, mostly Muslims.

The 1998 census showed Christians at 1.59 percent of the national population of 132 million.

Church leaders allege Christian numbers were hugely under-reported in the 2017 census. A repeat, they fear, could have an adverse impact on the community, including lesser political representation, reduced access to services, and increased discrimination and marginalization.

A further fall in Christian numbers may crush Christians’ decades-old demand for an increase in representation for religious minorities, from the current 10 seats to 14 seats in the 342-member national assembly.

“Due to a lack of information and trust, the public response to the census teams is not encouraging,”  the CSJ says.

The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), which conducts the census, should “help in building trust in the system and the final results,”  it said in a press release issued on March 14.

The CSJ further underlined the lack of preparation, training of field enumerators, and insufficient staff as problems hurting the online process.

The government provided digital platforms till March 13 for citizens to register online. Once registered, citizens were to get a password to enter and fill out the details of their families in a digital census form. Once done, another number was sent on their mobile phones to help enumerators visit homes and verify data.

Although the official date of online registration is over, people can still get counted when enumerators visit their homes. The process is expected to be complete on April 1 and results are expected on April 30.  

The CSJ said the process is complicated and enumerators were facing issues in finding locations of the houses on their tablets to be geo-tagged. Staff also complained about insufficient payments to carry out their duties in the field, which impacted work, the press release said.

“Filling out the online census form was a big challenge,” said Ashiknaz Khokhar, a Catholic activist and leader of the Active Youth of the Sacred Heart Church in Sahiwal, Punjab province.

“Even priests and nuns had no idea about using the portal. None of the Christian families in 81 houses we visited with the enumerators could register themselves online,” said Khokhar, who was part of the awareness creation campaign.

The youth activist and his team conducted awareness sessions on the importance of the census and have distributed literature in 18 churches so far. They said a particular problem linked to the community was Christians being predominantly poor, both financially and educationally.

Khokhar cited the case of Christian brickmakers and casual laborers in his rural parish, who avoid declaring their faith on an official document and prefer keeping a low profile to avoid being victimized by the Muslim majority.

Alice Garrick, executive director of the Women’s Development and Service Society of Raiwind diocese, agreed but referred to another reason many Christians avoided the census leading to a decline in their numbers.

“Our community doesn’t register women in the family to deny them their inheritance share. This unfortunate trend is dominant among Christians in city slums and villages. As a result, we lag behind Hindus in Punjab province,” she said.

At a recent consultation on the self-enumeration campaign for Christians at St. Peter’s High School in Lahore, Garrick pointed out how Hindus have clearly become part of Pakistan’s national politics and society while Christians continue to be isolated.

“Both the National Commission for Minorities and Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan are headed by Hindu businessmen,” she told the participants as an example of Hindus becoming part of mainstream society. The participants included some 50 pastors, journalists and activists from the community.

Father Rafhan Fayaz, the rector of the Lahore cathedral, said has been urging his community to shed the patriarchal mindset and become part of the demographic data.

“It’s a positive step for the community. Everyone should take the lead in getting themselves registered and obtaining a computerized identity card. Some people don’t get ID cards for their daughters considering it the responsibility of their future husbands. I request you all to join hands and avoid such mindset,” he told a Sunday gathering on March 12.

The Catholic Bishop’s National Commission for Justice and Peace has been playing its part to convince the community members.

The commission has conducted 11 seminars on the census exercise and five lobby meetings with parliamentarians this year.

“Their [parliamentarians] street power can mobilize communities for the census and ensure their availability at polling stations,” said Naeem Yousaf Gill, the commission’s executive director.

Thousands of Christians have migrated over the past decades because of discrimination and violence against them, which is also a factor for the declining numbers, Gill said.

The bishops' commission has also run a poster campaign urging all adults in a family to get their votes registered. The posters are displayed on Church premises across the country.

“Ink on the thumb can pull the community out of the darkness. The joint electorate can beat religious prejudice,” said one such poster.

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