Pakistani Catholic refugees lose their pastor

Priest who tends to Bangkok refugees to retire
Pakistani Catholic refugees lose their pastor
Father Bonnie Mendes celebrates Mass for a refugee family. A duvet serves as the altar reporter, Bangkok
September 6, 2011

Pakistani Catholic refugees in Bangkok will miss their only personal spiritual lifeline as Father Bonnie Mendes is set to leave Thailand after his expected retirement later this month as regional coordinator of Caritas Asia.

Father Mendes, 75, has been the only priest to visit 11 Pakistani Catholic families -- 45 adults and children – who are seeking asylum in Thailand after fleeing religious persecution in their country. The Pakistani priest has also been the only one who could celebrate Mass in Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, in their homes.

“We are worried that we will have no Pakistani priest. We will miss being able to call and talk to Father Bonnie when our hearts are troubled or when we can’t sleep from worrying,” said Yousuf (not his real name) at his home after an Urdu Mass celebrated by Father Mendes.

“But it is God who strengthens us. We will continue with our hour-long daily family prayer and sharing here at home,” the man, in his 40s, added.

Yousuf  is from Gojra, Pakistan, where an anti-Christian mob burned alive eight Christians in August 2009. Being a witness to the violence, he and his wife and four children, now between the ages of 6 and 17, had to flee their country.

He and his family now live in a spartan 4-by-4 meter room in an old apartment block, the rent for which is paid by an American evangelical church here. The Maryknoll missioners give basic food supplies to all the 11 families, who usually gather at a church in downtown Bangkok for faith instruction, Mass and fellowship.

Yousuf said they have to be careful every time they step out onto the streets. Thai police and immigration officers are wary that some of the many asylum seekers in the country could be terrorists, he explained.

Asked what else they ask of the local Church, Yousuf said, “We wish that our local parish church would give us identity cards or papers so that our identity is clear if we get arrested.”

Yousuf ‘s second son Jay (not his real name), 16, also said a parish identity card would be useful. He recalled having a close call when one day he was stopped by police who wanted money from him. Fortunately a Thai friend who was with him settled the matter without any trouble.

Commenting on the refugees’ wish for a parish identity card, Father Mendes said, “The Church in Thailand has never issued such identity cards because they never needed to. Also the Church helps refugees of all religions and does not give special treatment to Catholic refugees. And the Church here is not that politically influential.” Nevertheless he promised he would bring the matter up to the archbishop of Bangkok.

Meanwhile, Jay says he will persist in his dream of becoming a doctor. “Even though I cannot continue my schooling, I study biology on my own from books and materials from the internet,” he said as he showed illustrations of the various human organs he had drawn on pieces of paper. “I want to go to medical school after I am resettled in a third country,” he said.

Resettlement, however, seems a distant hope. According to Father Mendes, of the 45 Pakistani Catholic refugees, only a few have received official refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the first step toward resettlement.

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