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One Pakistani family's search for God in the slums

Urban drift from poor villages sees faithful huddling together for mutual support

One Pakistani family's search for God in the slums

Samuel Daniel and his family in their one-room apartment in Bahar Colony of Lahore. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry/ucanews.com)

Catholic Samuel Daniel was a farmer until 2011 when he moved to populous Lahore, the capital of eastern Pakistan's Punjab province.

"I was making furrows at night when something bit me," Daniel relates. "The next day my right leg swelled to the size of a tree trunk. I spent several months trying different treatments, but it worsened."

Daniel, 43, told ucanews.com that, to avoid amputation, he sold his home to pay for surgery. Although doctors cured his leg, they could not save his livelihood and the tractor driver sank into debt. He was unable to pay for three meals a day or the educational expenses of his four children.

He moved from Amritnagar village in Punjab to Bahar Colony, a rundown Christian neighborhood of Lahore near an open sewage drain. He is one of millions of villagers who have moved to big cities such as Lahore and Karachi in an attempt to escape poverty.

He works as a daily-wage construction laborer and rents a small house in a narrow, dirty street. He cannot afford to return to the green fields and fresh air of his village. Construction stops on rainy days, so the monsoon season significantly reduces earnings. Due to his weakened leg, sometimes Daniel falls while carrying heavy loads such as concrete or bricks.

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Yet he is still reluctant to send his children to government-owned schools despite the fact that they provide free education, textbooks and uniforms.

"Only Christian church-run schools offer catechism classes. I want my children to study in a Christian environment where they can develop self-confidence as students on an equal footing to others," he said.

Daniel's children attend a school run by a Protestant group that does not charge fees, but purchasing textbooks and stationery is still difficult.

According to Father Francis Gulzar, the vicar general of Lahore, poor Christians generally prefer to live in slums where rents are low and they are close to relatives.

"They feel more secure when freely practicing their faith in their own community. No other areas of the city offer shops selling Christian merchandise, Christian TV channels, shops named after saints and streets echoing with gospel music," said Father Gulzar, who is also the parish priest of St. John Catholic Church in Youhanabad, the largest Christian settlement with about 150,000 followers of the faith.

Besides a Sunday school, the diocese is raising funds to start a cable-based Catholic TV service.

Facebook is used to show the celebration of Mass live. "During the week, the number of 'likes' reaches 37,000," Father Gulzar said.

However, city life has its challenges. Most Christian families in the parish suffer from low levels of literacy, alcoholism and a lack of basic necessities as well as poor nutrition and other health problems, including ailments caused by polluted water.

Church leaders say many people in the Christian slums suffer as a result of the government's neglect, but Catholic families in Bahar Colony face an additional challenge posed by other denominations.

The colony has around 200 churches and serves as a venue for popular meetings every Wednesday by the evangelical Full Gospel Assemblies (FGA) Church.

Thousands attend these weekly healing crusades led by Pastor Anwar Fazal, the most popular Christian televangelist in the country and the man who founded Isaac TV, the first 24-hour Christian television channel in Pakistan.

"While listening to his prayers on TV, my family takes often some plain water and asks that it be blessed so we can use it as healing medicine. We can't afford expensive medical treatments and people believe in his miracles. All of my family now attend the FGA Church," said Daniel.

"We were staunch Catholics before, but now the trend is changing. I usually go to our old Catholic church by myself."

Father Morris Jalal, with 34 years of priesthood, acknowledges the number of devout practicing Catholics has been dwindling.

"A major factor is the rise of Gospel ministries. They tend to pop up like mushrooms in the wake of anti-Christian attacks. People seem less
inclined to consider God and more interested in the face or personality they go to see. They are struggling with their poorly embedded sense of Catholic doctrine," he said.

According to the Capuchin priest, the "ghetto mentality" has its advantages and disadvantages.

"Instead of competing with the rest of society, the community starts competing against its own members," he said. "This also hinders interfaith harmony in a practical sense. Non-Christians find it easy to blame these areas for much wrongdoing.

"At the same time, there is a certain joy to be found in the Christian slums that you don't find in other neighborhoods," he added.  "People here celebrate their religious feasts with wild abandon. The inferiority complex that affects many religious minorities doesn't penetrate these slums." 

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