Christian suburb in Lahore suffers poverty, terrorism

Neglected by the government, Youhanabad remains impoverished while nearby Muslim neighborhoods prosper
Christian suburb in Lahore suffers poverty, terrorism
The entrance gate of Youhanabad the largest Christian settlement in Pakistan that suffers poverty and extremist attacks. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)

Youhanabad, an area of Lahore, is unlike other parts of the Punjab capital. Silver crosses overlook shops, most of them named after Biblical characters. Tuk-tuks decorated with Christian rosaries and tiny icons queue near walls covered in posters for evangelists and Christian conventions.

Home to about 150,000 Christians, Youhanabad is translated as "John's Land." But if you walk further into the enclave, away from the modern Metro Bus station, the picture changes drastically.

A web of entangled electric wires spreads over unpaved streets. Open sewage flows over heaps of plastic bags and a foul smell pervades. There are no functional water filtration plants, health centers, parks, government schools or vocational centers.

"Also, there is no more space for the dead. The gravediggers make room for the new burials by altering the old graves. The government installed two tube wells two years ago but they are still not usable.  Stomach diseases are rampant because of arsenic-tainted water," Asif Sohail Khokhar chairman of the local council told ucanews.com.

"Even my eyebrows are falling out due to arsenic poisoning. On the other hand, neighboring Nishtar, a Muslim locality, has cemented streets. We are neglected because we are Christians and are seen with prejudice," said the politician.

Khokhar urged the church to do more.

"Lahore Archdiocese is running a hospital in Sialkot, 108 kilometers away but our people deserve care too. Medical Mission nuns left Youhanabad four years ago and a drug detoxification center, managed by Caritas Pakistan Lahore, closed down in 2014. The average income of Youhanabad resident is very low and many cannot afford the fees for missionary schools," he said. 

Capuchin Father Henri, an Oxford graduate from Belgium, bought Youhanabad's 40-hectare plot in 1961 and offered it to local Christians at a subsided price. They started settling two years later.

Despite being a constituency of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, decades of neglect and lack of development projects has rendered it the most impoverished Christian neighborhood in Lahore. Only church-run schools, centers for the mentally ill and elderly cater to the needs of locals.  

 

Watch this ucanews video to see more of life in Youhanabad.

 

Terrorist attack

Youhanabad caught the attention of the world in 2015 when Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, an offshoot of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, attacked two churches during Sunday Mass killing 15 Christians, including women and children. The suicide bombings left more than 70 more wounded.

"Weapons are prohibited inside the church. Strict legal action will be taken against infringement," says a public notice, emblazoned with a symbol of a rifle with a cross through it, at the entrance of St. John Catholic Church.

The church's front wall has a memorial for 20-year-old Akash Bashir who stopped a bomber from entering the church filled with more than 2,000 worshippers. The wall of the nearby Christ Church of Protestant Church is branded with similar memorials.

Lahore Archdiocese is presently pursuing sainthood for Bashir.

"His bravery has inspired all of us. More than 70 volunteers now check incoming parishioners. We have equipped the church with a walk-through gate, scanners and closed-circuit television cameras. We remain alert at every Mass since that day," said Father Francis Gulzar, the parish priest.

The vicar general of the archdiocese thanked the Punjab government for fixing the 500-meter Akash Shaheed (martyr) road that leads to the church earlier this year. "Still more needs to be done. Many people are jobless and literacy rates are very low," he said.

"Also 42 local Christians are still languishing in jail for lynching two Muslim terror suspects minutes after the bombings. We keep requesting Christian members of the provincial assembly to ensure their freedom. It was an immediate reaction in panic," Father Gulzar said.

The Catholic Bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace is presently pursuing the case and offering guidance to their families.

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