Pakistani Catholic on a sticky wicket in Bangkok

After being tortured by police and threatened with a gun in his homeland, an asylum seeker finds solace in cricket
Pakistani Catholic on a sticky wicket in Bangkok

A Bangkok Cricket Club batsman hits out during a league game in the Thai capital. A Pakistani Catholic asylum seeker escapes his problems by playing cricket in the league every weekend. (Photo courtesy of Bangkok Cricket Club)

Khalid Samuels was once very much an outdoors man who loved playing cricket. These days, though, the wannabe professional cricketer from Pakistan spends most of his time cooped up with his wife and young daughter in a small, sparsely furnished unit in a rundown apartment building in eastern Bangkok.

The family's door is routinely padlocked from the outside to make it seem as if no one lives there. "We hate the sound of ambulance sirens," says Samuels, a brawny, cordial man in his early thirties who asked that his real name not be used. "We think it's the police."

His low-rent building has been raided repeatedly by Thai authorities during crackdowns on visa overstayers like him. Residents nabbed by police have ended up in Bangkok's Immigration Detention Center where inmates are kept, often indefinitely, like common criminals in cramped, miserable conditions.

Samuels has so far escaped that indignity. It could be a matter of time, though, before he too runs out of luck. "I often feel like I'm a felon on the run," he observes in fluent English.

As he is staying illegally in Thailand, Samuels feels he needs to take extra precautions when he leaves his modest room, which doubles as a hiding place of sorts for him and his family. He avoids certain areas of town and prefers not to be outdoors at certain times of day in case he is stopped on the street by police during random checks on tourists and foreigners.

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A Catholic asylum seeker from Lahore, Samuels has had his application for refugee status rejected by the local office of the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He is like thousands of other Pakistani Christians in Bangkok who say they would be facing the prospect of persecution, and possibly death, if they ever returned to their homes in Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim nation with an increasingly strident interpretation of Islamic laws.

The cricketer is now languishing in the Thai capital without any legal rights. He cannot work, so he needs to subsist on financial aid from local Catholic charities. His 4-year-old daughter, who was born in the country, is now a stateless child who cannot go to school or even outdoors much. "I don't wish this [situation] on anyone," he notes laconically.

On Sundays, though, Samuels braves the risk of getting caught by police to engage in his favorite pastime. He can breathe some fresh air and come back into his own. He plays as a batsman for Bangkok Cricket Club in Division A of the Bangkok Cricket League — Thailand's premier, semi-professional competition that features, in addition to plenty of homegrown talent, a motley mix of foreign devotees of the sport from countries like India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K.

One of his team's stalwarts, Samuels was recently named player of the match thanks to his fine batting tally.

Despite his travails in Thailand, Samuels feels more at ease playing cricket in Bangkok than he did back in Lahore, where he hoped to become a professional player in a cricket-mad nation. "In Pakistani culture names are important and mine marked me out [as a Christian]," Samuels, who started training in cricket at age 5, explains. "I played well but was not selected for some teams because of my religion."

Even when he was selected for a team competing at district level, he says, some of his Muslim teammates refused to socialize with him. They would not shake his hand or sit next to him. Christians like him were expected to drink from separate bottles and glasses so that they wouldn't contaminate the beverages of Muslim players.

To escape from overt discrimination and ensure they could have a career in the sport, several Christian cricketers have converted to Islam. One such convert is Yousuf Youhana, a brilliant batsman who hails from a poor family in Lahore and became one of a handful of Christians to play for Pakistan's national team. In 2005, he converted to Islam and adopted the name Mohammad Yousuf. A few years later, Yousuf was dropped repeatedly from the national squad over several controversies, including his stated desire to join the Indian Cricket League.

Samuels says he refused to convert to Islam and paid the price. "They would change the batting order to keep me down," he says. "They cared more about religion than about winning. If you don't get opportunities, how can you succeed?"

Other Christian asylum seekers from Pakistan have similar tales to tell about pervasive religious discrimination in their homeland.

"If you apply for a [well-paying] job, they will give it automatically to someone called Mohammed this or that, not John or James," says a Catholic schoolteacher who asked to remain anonymous.

Another Catholic asylum seeker from a well-connected family in Pakistan concurs. "There are really talented Christians in Pakistan who get nowhere because of their religion," he says.

Some of that diehard religious chauvinism has followed Samuels even to Thailand. He produces his mobile phone to show a message he received on a social media app from a Pakistani Muslim expatriate who plays in the Bangkok Cricket League with him. The man became irate when he learned Samuels was seeking refugee status in Thailand. "You're a traitor to our country by coming here to seek asylum," his message read in part.

Pakistani Catholic batsman Khalid Samuels (not his real name) shows off a player of the match trophy he won during a recent Bangkok Cricket League game in Bangkok. (Photo courtesy of Bangkok Cricket Club)

 

Yet it wasn't because of occupational discrimination and verbal abuse that Samuels was forced to flee Pakistan. In 2002, one of his sisters, then 17, was kidnapped on her way to school.

Samuels and his family did not hear from or about her for a decade. Yet within a day they knew what had happened to her. A young Muslim man whose advances she had refused seized her from the street with his accomplices and took her in a car to an unknown location.

When Samuels's family reported the alleged kidnapping, the police weren't interested. "They wouldn't help us," Samuels recalls. "They told us she had probably run away with him."

Such official indifference to crimes committed against Christians and other religious minorities is widespread, according to Pakistani rights activists. "That's the reality of Pakistan. That's its true face," observes one Catholic activist who assisted Catholics in cases similar to Samuels' and was forced to flee the country after two failed attempts on his life.

"Muslims can act with impunity against us Christians," says the activist, who now lives in Bangkok and wants to remain anonymous. "There's nothing we can do."

International human rights activists agree. "Pakistan is one of the worst countries to live in as a member of a religious minority group due to the lack of human rights protection accorded to minority communities," the University of Oxford's faculty of law notes in its online Oxford Human Rights Hub. "Recent years have seen an intensification of violent persecution of religious minorities."

Newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan, a cricketer turned politician, has said that the rights of religious minorities will be respected in Pakistan. Yet prominent members of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) party have been publicly referring to Christians with pejoratives such as chooras (low caste) and kafirs (unbelievers).

A variety of Islamic militant groups, meanwhile, are taking a hard-line stance against Christians, whom they consider the local foot soldiers of "Crusaders," especially the U.S. "They say the U.S. is killing Muslims in Pakistan [through drone strikes], so they will be killing local Christians in revenge," says the Catholic rights activist.

In 2012, Samuels received an unexpected call. It was from his sister. She told him she had been kept as a prisoner on the premises of a lavish, well-guarded estate in the city of Faisalabad in Pakistan's Punjab province. She had been married against her will and now had a young daughter.

She could only call surreptitiously from a doctor's office and had to hang up. But before she did, she told Samuels about her whereabouts. The Catholic cricketer got in his car and drove there to take her back to Lahore.

Samuels' family hid his sister and her daughter in a safe house in an effort to keep the mother and child away from her domineering and physically abusive husband.

However, the man, who belongs to a wealthy and influential family in Faisalabad, came looking for her. He had Samuels arrested by police. "They said I had kidnapped my own sister so that I could convert her back to Christianity," Samuels says.

"The police beat me and tortured me," he adds, showing off visible scars on both his calves, which he says he received from being beaten with sticks. His back, too, was badly bruised. "I couldn't walk or sit or lie down properly for days," he remembers.

He was released by police, but shortly afterwards his sister's husband accosted him on the street with two other men. "They started to beat me. He put a gun to my head and said I was working against Muslims and Islam," Samuels says. "I thought they were going to kill me."

As a crowd of onlookers began to gather, he managed to make his escape. Fearing for his life, Samuels flew to Thailand on a tourist visa.

Just as he left Pakistan, the men showed up at his mother's home. "They brutalized my brother," he says. "My mother collapsed from shock." The elderly woman, a 65-year-old housewife, died.   

In April 2014, the Muslim man managed to track Samuels' sister down and seize her again. The Pakistani Christian has not heard from her since. "It's heartbreaking for me," he laments.

He can't return to Pakistan to try and spring her from captivity again. Samuels says a militant Islamist group has issued a fatwa on him for being an alleged enemy of Islam. The clerical ruling now essentially serves as an unofficial death sentence handed out to the fugitive Christian in absentia. "I'd like to return to Pakistan," he says. "My father and mother are both buried there. But I can't return."

Nor can he really stay in Thailand — not as a free agent at any rate. He needs to keep his head down and stay out of sight for fear of being arrested as an illegal migrant.

But at least he can draw some comfort from playing cricket on weekends. "Cricket is my passion," Samuels says. "My life is stressful. Playing cricket is like therapy for me. It's recreation."

As he grows older, his lifelong dream of becoming a professional player is now increasingly out of his reach. He appears stoical about that, though. "When your dream is not fulfilled, how can you be happy?" he offers. "But what can I do?"  

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