Christian students find hope in Pakistan's blackboard jungle

Church-run schools help provide education to children who face abuse and discrimination in state institutions
Christian students find hope in Pakistan's blackboard jungle

Students of Mission School in Pakistan's Punjab province study in a classroom with a kitchen. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)

A Christian school in Punjab province in Pakistan has a unique layout — the kitchen and a classroom are in the same place.

Mathematics posters and colorful charts decorate the walls surrounding the steel sink. A couple of small chairs and a central table leave little space for cabinets full of plates and some milk boxes.

"After the school bell rings at 9 a.m., it becomes the classroom for grade four students. Normally two classes are adjusted in the same room. The teacher briefly pauses her lesson when the house cleaner has to wash the dishes for visitors," Rose Asif, principal of Mission School, told ucanews.com.

Asif, the wife of a pastor, started the school in 2013 from a Sunday school they ran in a Pentecostal church. Her husband helps in transporting students on his motorcycle. The school offers education until grade eight and fees range from 50 to 250 rupees (US$2) per month. It has no science or computer laboratories. Its 170 Christian students are from Khanpur, a rural town on the outskirts of Punjab capital Lahore.

"The families are mostly farmers and factory workers in surrounding villages. The whole fee is only charged for those who can afford it. Sometimes church members donate uniforms and books," said Asif.

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"With our limited resources, it is hard to convince qualified teachers to join the institute. Still, it offers hope to the poor locals."

Lahore-based educational NGO Starfish Pakistan recently revealed the plight of such institutions in a survey of 604 schools for the poorest Christians in 23 districts of Punjab, Islamabad and Karachi. About 34 percent of these schools are associated to Catholic or Protestant churches.

The "For a Better World" survey offers an insight into the state of education for 85,000 Pakistani Christian children studying in low-cost schools like Mission School.  According to the findings:

  • 61 percent of teachers have only studied to intermediate level (grade 12) or below, while 3,374 teachers have no professional qualifications
  • Some teachers are working for less than 2,000 rupees (US$15) a month
  • Student absenteeism is a very serious issue
  • 24 percent of children have no textbooks
  • Only 14 percent of schools have any electricity backup
  • 78 schools (13 percent) have no toilets
  • 54 schools (9 percent) have no blackboards
  • 133 schools (22 percent) have no access to usable drinking water
  • Only 218 schools (36 percent) are receiving subsidy funding from the government, churches or NGOs.

Students at Mission School in Punjab province have only one water cooler. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)

 

"The report paints a picture that is both disturbing and inspiring of schools run on a shoestring with very limited resources but very dedicated staff," said Ansar Javed, national director of Starfish Pakistan.

"The most prominent problem faced by almost all schools is the lack of space, furniture, books and other basic facilities. Without education our community will remain poor and unproductive.

"Government schools charge no fees but they are underfunded, poorly managed and inadequate to meet the needs of an exploding population. These schools treat Christians as second-class citizens or subject them to abuse and pressure to change their religion. The discrimination prevents many children from attending public schools. The religious and political bias in school textbooks is also well documented."

Human rights activists say minority students often face bullying and harassment due to religious hatred and intolerance.

Sheron Masih, a ninth grader, was killed last year by Muslim classmates in a state-run school in Burewala in Punjab province for allegedly drinking water from a glass meant for Muslims. In a class of 70 students, 17-year-old Masih was the only Christian.

Most Christian parents prefer church-run schools, the only educational institutes that offer catechism classes in the Islamic republic. Muslims also admire their high-quality education and discipline. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is among the alumni of St. Anthony's High School run by Lahore Archdiocese.

Starfish Pakistan is helping 43 schools as well as hostels, orphanages, technical institutes and centers for disabled and orphaned children. The organization also provides scholarships to more than 200 poor students to pursue higher academic degrees and vocational training courses.

Father Inayat Bernard, rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore, appreciates the support of Starfish Pakistan for Christian education institutes. Since last month, he has distributed funding to more than 80 students who passed grade 10 and 12 examinations. Six fresh graduates will receive checks in the cathedral on Oct. 28.  

"Education is one of the most important apostolates of the local church and the only means of survival for the minority in Pakistan. We are urging parishioners to get academic degrees with good job scope," said Father Bernard.

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