Parishioners celebrate the 47th anniversary of Immaculate Conception Church in Toba Tek Singh in 2016. (Photo: Immaculate Conception Church's Facebook page)
Police have registered a case against the Catholic priest of Toba Tek Singh city in Punjab province for leading a public procession on Palm Sunday.
Police named Father Samuel George of Immaculate Conception Church and catechist Yousaf Masih in an April 5 first information report. The procession was held in Mubarakabad, a Catholic neighborhood of Toba Tek Singh that is home to 25,000 Christians.
Punjab’s government has enforced a law that prohibits public gatherings to curb the spread of Covid-19. Pakistan has reported 3,864 cases of coronavirus and 55 deaths, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University.
“Our special informer described that the priest and three other people gathered 25 to 30 people of the Christian community for prayer. We saw the four accused with the crowd in a street. They have been arrested,” said Tahir Mehmood, a police sub-inspector.
Section 188 of the Pakistan Penal Code carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison or a fine or both. Father George and members of his pastoral team are now on pre-arrest bail.
Immaculate Conception Church in Faisalabad Diocese is the second Catholic church recently raided by Punjab police. Last month police stopped worshipers from gathering at St. Paul’s Church in Narowal district of Lahore Archdiocese for a Sunday Mass.
Shumaila Javed, a local Catholic, denied the arrest of church officials in Toba Tek Singh.
“The faithful of Mubarakabad only wanted the priest to bless their street. They had promised to stay indoors. However, when the small procession arrived, some couldn’t stop themselves from joining the group. Social media activists should avoid spreading this news. At least they should consider the dignity of the priest,” she told UCA News.
In a message aired on April 3 on Catholic TV, Bishop Indrias Rehmat of Faisalabad shared the schedule of limited prayer services in Holy Week.
“The lockdown is for our own benefit. Our services are limited but try to avoid them. Prayers will be held without faithful. Save yourself and protest others. Follow our prayers streamed live on social media,” Bishop Rehmat said.
“Make the best of this time by teaching catechism to your children. It is time to open your hands and help others. We thank people who give charity for helping those affected by the virus.”
On April 6, the bishop reminded priests in 21 parishes and 10 subparishes of Faisalabad to avoid public Masses.
Father Bonnie Mendes, executive director of the Society for Human Development, said the incident in Toba Tek Singh was a second reminder to be careful amid the lockdown.
“Father George overstepped his authority. Even he didn’t expect so many people to show up,” said Father Mendes.