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Intolerance, discrimination hold back young Pakistani Christians

The Church needs to ensure that they have proper support to find a rightful place in society and the state
Daniel Bashir (right), a 26-year-old Pakistani Christian doctor from Karachi, takes a selfie with Pope Francis after presenting him a traditional handicraft fabric during a youth conference in Vatican City on March 19, 2018. Bashir spoke of his 'heartache' at the treatment of minorities in Pakistan, and said the pontiff told him he was praying for peace.

Daniel Bashir (right), a 26-year-old Pakistani Christian doctor from Karachi, takes a selfie with Pope Francis after presenting him a traditional handicraft fabric during a youth conference in Vatican City on March 19, 2018. Bashir spoke of his 'heartache' at the treatment of minorities in Pakistan, and said the pontiff told him he was praying for peace. (Photo by handout/ Daniel Bashir/ AFP)

Published: March 28, 2024 03:10 AM GMT
Updated: March 28, 2024 04:03 AM GMT

Pakistan is a melting pot of ethnic, religious, and cultural diversities. Home to over 220 million people, it is also a youthful nation where about 64 percent of people are aged between 15-29, according to official estimates.

Unfortunately, the enormous potential of youth power remains largely unutilized due to various socio-economic drawbacks such as lack of education and professional skills, unemployment, and empowerment, among others. Their needs remain unaddressed and dreams unfulfilled.

The situation is worse for young people from religious minority groups such as Christians in this Muslim-majority country amid increasing religious intolerance, extremism, social discrimination, and a lack of opportunities for upward mobility.

Young Christians also live in fear of threats and violence from the majority community. Several young Christians have died and sustained injuries in a series of extremist attacks on churches and Christian neighborhoods in the past decades.

The Pakistan Church is currently pursuing sainthood for young Christian martyr, Akash Bashir, who died while preventing a suicide bomber from blowing up a church in Lahore in 2015.

Many Christian youths live in lifelong trauma from such brutalities.

"Blasphemy laws have been weaponized to target Christians with violence and jailing, even death"

The latest victims of such brutality can be seen in a Christian neighborhood in Jaranwala, Faisalabad of Punjab province, where a Muslim mob attacked, looted, and destroyed several churches and Christian homes last August over a baseless blasphemy allegation.

Many young girls from religious minorities, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs, have been kidnapped sexually abused, and forcibly converted to Islam.

At least 1,000 girls between the ages of 12-25 from religious minorities are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year and married to their abductors, said an all-party parliamentary group report in 2021, terming the situation a “human-rights catastrophe."

A major reason for Christian youths to keep away from the social mainstream is their fear that the controversial blasphemy laws could be misused against them. Blasphemy laws have been weaponized to target Christians with violence and jailing, even death. A climate of fear instilled by blasphemy laws intimidates Christian youth and restricts their freedom of expression.

Social inequalities also help widen the rich-poor gap, adversely affecting most Christian youths in Pakistan, especially those from impoverished families.

The majority of Pakistan’s estimated 2.6 million Christians live on the margins of society as they are seen as descendants of lower-caste Hindus who converted a century ago when Pakistan was part of British India.

"They are often confused and need career orientation and guidance"

This class divide hits young Christians from poor families the most. They suffer from social discrimination, and added to that is crippling financial poverty. Most Christian youths cannot afford to study in the country’s elite educational institutions.

The lack of formal education and skills training curtail their abilities to excel in life, personally and professionally. Some take up menial jobs like a sweeper or a sewage cleaner. Many also resort to drug addiction and street crimes that eventually destroy them and their families.

Some 64 percent of the national population is estimated to be middle-class, and youths from this class are diligent individuals who, despite having little money, try to accomplish their objectives.

However, they face a dilemma in choosing their professions. Many prefer jobs like teaching and nursing, which offer them job stability. Middle-class Christian youths are no different. They are often confused and need career orientation and guidance.

Young people, Christians as well as from other faiths, with lower middle-class and poor backgrounds suffer most due to insufficient resources and lack of direction.

The lack of education, social and economic problems, and political uncertainty also play negative roles in the religiosity of young people in Pakistan, including young Christians.

"Christians are considered 'outsiders' by mainstream society because of their faith and are treated like 'second-class' citizens"

We cannot expect young Christians to follow their religion if they are unemployed and frustrated. The decline in religiosity is also fueled by an absence of adult religious faith formation.

Church authorities need to find creative ways to help youths find a solid basis for their faith despite the various difficulties they face every day. The primary need is to have wider and open consultations with young people to better understand their problems and evolve solutions.

Often, Christians are considered “outsiders” by mainstream society because of their faith and are treated like “second-class” citizens. The social stigma and marginalization hold them back in social relationships, education, and work. All these lead to an identity crisis among Christian youths.

The Church in Pakistan needs to ensure that Christians, especially young people, have proper support to find a rightful place in society and the state. Church leaders should help youths to keep in mind the words of Pope John Paul II: “Do not be afraid to be the saints of the new millennium” (World Youth Day, 2000). 

Christian leaders, who continue to take pride in running some of the country's prestigious schools, need to examine the reasons behind some 60 percent of Christian youths dropping out of primary school. Christian churches should revise their pastoral policies to offer young Christians better education and vocational training. 

While legal reforms lie with the state, the Church can play a vital role by engaging in relentless campaigns, interfaith dialogue and activities to promote harmony. The Church can help Christian youths have a better future in Pakistan if it can bring changes to society with dialogue and harmony.

The Catholic hierarchy is aware that politics affects every aspect of life in Pakistan. Church leaders need to stand up to voice the concerns of the poor and their community through dialogue, negotiations and lobbying.

The Pakistan Church should leave no stone unturned to promote social integration for youths, for equal rights and opportunities, to allow them to live in a more acceptable and tolerant society.

*Capuchin Father Lazar Aslam is a missionary working with young Christians in Pakistan. Based in Lahore, Pakistan, he also contributes articles on the life and activities of the local Church. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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