An official from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics collects information from residents during a census, as an army soldier stands guard, in Quetta on March 15, 2017. (Photo by Banaras Khan/AFP)
As Pakistan continues its first census in nearly two decades, the Catholic Church is conducting a parallel census to prove that it is the second largest religion in the country and claim greater representation.
The decision was taken by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Pakistan and various parishes have already formed teams of volunteers to complete the survey.
They also developed a census form that collates parishioners' Computerised National Identity Card, their denomination and family members.
Pakistan on March 15 began its first census in nearly two decades. The exercise is being conducted with much security as thousands of enumerators go from house to house for the count.
"We have teachers, youth members, activists and pastoral staff carrying out the count. The challenge is to finish before the government completes its census. The 1998 census got the figures for Christians wrong but an accurate assessment will help our access to reserved parliamentary seats and job opportunities," Father Francis Gulzar, vicar general of Lahore Archdiocese told ucanews.com.
While the bishops' conference has been promoting the campaign on social media, Caritas Pakistan has organized seminars and Bishop Joseph Arshad of Faisalabad urged Christian NGOs to share data about Christians in urban neighbourhoods and villages. The headcount must be completed by May 25, he said.
The Christian population in 2012 was over 1.2 million while Hindus numbered more than 1.4 million, according to the National Database and Registration Authority. This placed Hinduism as the second-largest religion in Pakistan after Islam but church sources claim that the actual Christian population is about 1.5 million.
Among 10 non-Muslim members of the national assembly, seven are Hindu while three are Christian. Hindus occupy three seats in the Senate while Christians only have two. If greater number of Christians can be proved then the government will be obliged to offer more seats .
Franciscan Brother Khushi Lal said discrimination was responsible for miscalculating the Christian population. "Christians with foreign names that were difficult to pronounce were completely left out. Now we are more careful against lazy officials," he said.
Peter Jacob, the Catholic director of the Centre for Social Justice said the census must be credible for it to have an impact.
"A parallel census is very important for the entire nation, it can help fill the gaps and address our scepticism and dissatisfaction. However, its success depends on the methodology. The government will only accept church statistics if they are collected by experienced people," he said.
Anjum James Paul, chairman of Pakistan Minorities Teachers' Association, said Christians would have a stronger voice if they had their rightful political share.
"The Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms has already finalized its recommendations which include the policy of inducting representation for women and religious minorities. We demand its immediate suspension; there can be no reforms until the census is completed," he said.