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Growing up Catholic in Islamic Pakistan

Faithful battle to keep alive the national founding spirit of tolerance and inclusion

Growing up Catholic in Islamic Pakistan

Faisal Mushtaq, a 32-year-old Catholic, works as a gatekeeper and plumber in Karachi. Some of his Muslim co-workers were reluctant to eat or drink with him when he moved south. (Photo by Zahid Hussain/ucanews.com)

Maintaining Catholic values can be daunting in a theocratic Muslim-majority state such as Pakistan. Yet faith abides.

Christians make up about 3 percent of the nation's 210 million population and about half of them are Catholics who, along with members of other marginalized communities, face persecution.

Catholic Faisal Mushtaq was frustrated some 10 years ago by a lack of job opportunities in his hometown of Sialkot in Punjab province, so he took the difficult decision to move to the southern port city of Karachi.

The 32-year-old father of two now works there as an apartment building plumber and gatekeeper paid about US$115 a month, which is less than the official minimum wage. However, he earns an extra US$80 a month by washing cars.

Being Catholic in a deeply religiously conservative country was never easy, but Mushtaq learned to survive and seek Muslim acceptance.

"While most people have been welcoming, some of my Muslim co-workers were reluctant to eat or drink with me," Mushtaq said. While at first feeling hurt, he came to understand that often it is not possible to change people's way of thinking.

Mushtaq starts his day with prayers of thanks to Jesus.

"My parents, who now live with me in Karachi, attend the weekly Sunday Mass in our area church, but I can't do that because of my busy work schedule," he said.

"At schools, stereotyping and bullying of our children are not uncommon, but they get used to it eventually and things are better at senior level."

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Faisal Mushtaq earns an extra US$80 a month by washing cars. (Photo by Zahid Hussain/ucanews.com)


Pakistan was a nation created primarily as a haven for religious and ethnic minorities on the Hindu-majority subcontinent, but its founding principles of pluralism and religious tolerance are eroding.

Nonetheless, many Catholics and members of other religious minorities remain loyal to their homeland and would be willing to lay down their lives for the chaotic Islamic republic. Yet Muslims often ignore the problems of hopeful but heavily burdened minorities.

Some Catholic Pakistanis have stepped forward to talk about the unfairness of the past but say they are treated much better these days. Others cite ongoing abuses or the ignoring of their difficulties.

"While I was growing up in Karachi, I faced a discriminatory attitude from my schoolteachers only because of my Catholic faith," 22-year-old media student Jennifer Michael said.

Teachers of Islamic studies and the Urdu language treated her poorly and told her to go and study in a Christian school, she said. Such bigotry persisted to the point where she began to question her own identity and see being Christian as something bad.

"I wanted to give up but my family kept me going and encouraged me to practice my religious beliefs without any fear," Michael recalled.

"However, after growing up I no longer faced these issues. People have now become more tolerant. Friends and the teachers I interact with now on my university campus treat me as one of their own." 

Steve Watson, who works at a famed patisserie in Karachi, noted that most prosecutions for alleged blasphemy have been in Punjab. There have also been deadly terrorist attacks on Catholic churches in Lahore, the capital city of Punjab, he added.

"Life has never been easy but this did not deter me from embracing the Catholic way of life," Watson said, pointing to discrimination in government employment and the allocation of public housing.

Thirty-year-old Karachi web developer Sunny Sameer welcomed freedom to practice Christianity and conduct festivities but complained of the "threat" posed by the nation's blasphemy laws.

These laws were abused by people to pursue personal vendettas, particularly in Punjab, Sameer said. He worries that somebody with a grudge against him, or hoping to seize personal property such as his house, could try to get him killed by making false blasphemy allegations.

Sameer said young Christians are not opposed outright to the blasphemy law but want unfair manipulation of it to be curtailed.

There remain some prejudiced Muslims who would not share eating and drinking utensils or eat with non-Muslims. However, he added that there are also Muslims who treat practitioners of other faiths, including himself, kindly "like we're all the same."

Christian columnist and activist Norbert J. Almeida attracted attention with Twitter comments reflecting lightheartedly on poignant aspects of Muslim relations with non-Muslims.

This included a reference to shock among classmates when he topped Islamic studies at college despite being the only non-Muslim on the course.

And he tweeted that the overwhelming majority attending his father's Catholic funeral Mass were Muslim friends, colleagues and acquaintances, despite the service being held on the first day of the Islamic Eid festival.

"That is the Pakistan I grew up loving," Almeida said, adding that it is his hope such open-mindedness will over time become widely entrenched.

This article was first published 22. 8. 2018.

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