People celebrate the opening of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church in Jafapur village in Punjab province on Dec. 13, 2019. The church was built with the backing of the Human Friends Organization. (Photo supplied)
Sajid Christopher is a man on a unique mission — to build churches in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
For the past three years, he has managed the construction of more than 50 churches including 25 Catholic places of worship, mostly in the dioceses of Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan. Several churches have centers for skills development.
“These centers can be used for adult literacy as well as sharing the joys and sorrows of a community that continues to face human rights violations and discrimination. Most of the blasphemy and Sharia cases in Pakistan are registered against Christians in Punjab. Career skills as well as more churches bring hope and blessings,” Christopher, 45, told UCA News.
“We only build prayer halls on land owned either by the community or a diocese. Properties donated by individuals or illegal slums are a major reason behind mob attacks.”
Christopher, the founder and president of the Human Friends Organization (HFO), was referring to a mob attack on a church under construction in Punjab’s Sahiwal district last month. A Christian tailor who had donated his 51-square-meter plot for church construction was left mute and half-paralyzed after being shot in the head while his family tried to prevent the mob from pulling down the wall of the church.
Earlier this month, Christians from Bhagiana village in Punjab attended a memorial service for 22-year-old Saleem Masih, a Christian farm laborer who died of multiple organ failure after being tortured for washing himself in a well owned by a Muslim farmer.
In January, Ejaz Alam Augustine, Punjab’s minister of human rights, minority affairs and interfaith harmony, launched the “Harmonious, Tolerant and Safe Punjab” campaign that involves the formulation of an interfaith harmony policy on promoting diversity in the province, where Christians are the largest non-Muslim minority.
The project was launched a few days after a mob pelted stones and shouted anti-Sikh slogans outside Gurdwara Janam Asthan, a Sikh place of worship in Nankana Sahib district.
Sajid Christopher (right) with Father Abid Tanveer at the opening ceremony of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church. (Photo supplied)
To avoid complications, HFO only accepts applications for building churches from parish priests. The required documents include copies of registry, photos of the site, a letter of request from the local church leader and an assessment of community needs. Verification takes about three to six months.
After construction, which usually takes about two months, churches are handed over to the local community with a signed memorandum of understanding.
“To ensure transparency, a team is formed to purchase building materials. It includes the pastor/priest in charge, catechist and a community representative. We recommend selecting top-quality iron beams, cement and bricks. Duplicate receipts are kept both at the parish and in our records,” said Christopher, a former animator with Caritas Pakistan.
“A sense of ownership is developed by encouraging communities to provide the labor.”
Established in 2003, HFO focuses on religious freedom, human rights and interfaith harmony. According to its website, the organization is supporting 11 blasphemy victims and displaced families through shelter and food. It is providing free legal assistance to 10 victims of forced conversion. It has also established a parliamentarians’ caucus of minority and Muslim politicians at provincial and national levels to influence and promote pro-minority policies.
The Catholic NGO also manages a sewing center, a computer education facility and an orphanage in Youhanabad, one of Pakistan’s biggest Christian localities. It also supports 31 Christian victims of the 2015 suicide attacks on two churches in Youhanabad.
Worshipers at the newly built Jesus and Mary Catholic Church. (Photo supplied)
However, HFO’s community development churches (CDC) project came to a halt amid the lockdown across much of the country as part of sweeping measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced the launch of a “corona relief youth tiger force” of young volunteers to help the government provide ration bags, assist at quarantine centers and hospitals and arrange funerals.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan has risen to 1,717 with 21 deaths, according to the latest data.
“The last Catholic church was built and blessed before Christmas. We cannot put the lives of volunteer laborers at risk. Also, building material shops are closed,” said Christopher, adding that 100 Christian families will be provided with food packages on March 31 in Youhanabad.
Father Shahzada Khurram, in charge of St. Joseph’s Parish in Lahore Archdiocese, said the CDC project has helped to increase the Catholic community in the Islamic republic. In his six years of priesthood, the Capuchin has managed the building of two churches and three catechist houses and extended one church building.
In 2016, HFO provided construction materials for one of those churches in Behni Dalwa village near the Wagah border crossing with India.
“Only 60 faithful used to attend the church every Sunday. More than 200 had become regular worshipers following the construction of our new building until March 15 when Punjab’s government suspended church gatherings amid a rise in coronavirus cases,” said Father Khurram.
According to the Catholic Directory of 2018, Pakistan has about 1.5 million Catholics in 121 parishes.