Father Shahzad Khokhar, the assistant parish priest of St. Peter's Church in Lahore, packs food as part of Christian Scouts' initiative to distribute food to the poor in the area. (Photo supplied)
A Pakistani Christian youth group has been serving breakfast to needy people during the South Asian nation's Covid-19 lockdown.
The youngsters from St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Lahore’s Township area, who call themselves Christian Scouts, spearheaded the charity initiative after hearing reports of local people, including toddlers, going with empty stomachs.
Aslam Kami Bhutta, president of St. Peter’s Church committee, said the 15-member group distributes breakfast on a daily basis among the poor regardless of their faith.
“We were moved after we found families risking their lives to feed themselves as the nationwide lockdown, which started on March 24, has brought the country to a standstill,” said Bhutta, adding that Lahore is the worst-affected area in Punjab province, which had 4,328 confirmed coronavirus cases as of April 22.
Father Shahzad Khokhar, assistant parish priest of St. Peter’s Church, said the Christian Scouts group is not associated with any international body. “We just named it so as to highlight the Christian spirit and discipline,” he said.
Traditionally poor Christians in Lahore did not have the means to fund the project. “Some people chipped in with flour and oil to make parathas and curries, while some donated their salaries and others their pocket money,” Bhutta said.
The church is ideally located to cater to the needy irrespective of religious affiliation, Bhutta added. “On one side of the church, Muslims live, while the other side houses the Christian community,” he said. “What started as a small initiative now caters to more than 500 people.”
Pakistan is known for religious discrimination against minority Christians and Muslims. However, the Christian Scout group does not allow religious affiliation to come in their way while feeding the hungry.
Muhammad Imdad, a Muslim beneficiary of the charity, said his family were starving. “Now we have something to eat thanks to the Christian community.”
”Some eat breakfast here before taking it away to distribute among family members,” said Nadeem Shakar, a member of the group. “We extend a warm welcome to Muslim brothers so that they are not hesitant to come.”
“We follow all the government-mandated preventive measures, including social distancing and hygienic norms, while preparing and distributing the food,” Aunty Feroza Taj, a 79-year-old volunteer of the group, said.
Dilshaad Masih, a Christian daily wage earner, said his family comprising eight children and wife depend on the charity for their daily breakfast.
“My food stock finished on the fourth day of the coronavirus lockdown. Though we knocked on the doors of friends and relatives, none came to the rescue,” said Masih.
Bhutta said the project will continue until the lockdown is lifted.
Call from the cardinal
In the Archdiocese of Karachi, Jafaria Disaster Management Cell (JDC), a prominent Muslim charity, set up a food collection and distribution camp at St. Patrick’s Cathedral this week. Christian volunteers of JDC have distributed ration bags among 4,000 minority families through different churches.
“JDC ration for Christian community affected by lockdown” states a banner emblazoned on the brown gates of the cathedral.
“We are working under the administration of Cardinal Joseph Coutts. It is an open operation. We are registering beneficiaries from all religions. Trucks are unloading food packs and distribution goes on all day long. Church of Pakistan pastors have also offered their churches and grounds for distributions centers,” said JDC chief Zafar Abbas.
Bryan Everest, a JDC volunteer, said blackmailing and lack of cooperation were the biggest challenges.
“Many people question our motives supporting those of other faiths. A Protestant church refused to collect raw food from the Catholic cathedral. We had to make a separate distribution center at their church,” he said.
“We shall switch to cooked food during Ramadan. Meals will be provided at doorsteps during sehri [pre-dawn meal] and iftar to break the fast. Appeals have been made to all churches for Ramadan funds.”
Cardinal Coutts appreciates JDC’s efforts.
“Amid worries and desperation, we are encouraged by such volunteers. We need such people and volunteers who have come with open hearts to serve people. We cannot come out of this crisis without unity,” he said in a video released by JDC.
“It is not only about food. We have to reach out to others and break walls of sectarianism. This is a national issue affecting everybody, especially the poor. The virus is hurting our economy and big businesses are closing. We should accept each other with love. I welcome Muslims who wish to volunteer. It is important to donate time and hard work. Allah bless those who step up in this calamity.”
A test for the premier
Meanwhile, Firdous Ashiq Awan, special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on information and broadcasting, said on April 22 that Khan’s test for the coronavirus was negative.
Khan had agreed to undergo a test after a well-known philanthropist tested positive days after meeting the prime minister. Faisal Edhi, son of late philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi and chairman of the Edhi Foundation, met Khan last week.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on April 16 approved nearly US$1.4 billion aid to help cash-strapped Pakistan ramp up spending on its health sector, which remains the lowest in the region.
"While uncertainty remains high, the near-term economic impact of Covid-19 is expected to be significant, giving rise to large fiscal and external financing needs," the international lender said in a statement. The IMF has noted that Pakistan’s economy will fall into recession in this fiscal year and growth is expected to shrink by 1.5 percent.
Pakistan's death toll from Covid-19 has reached 235 from 11,057 confirmed cases, according to the latest data.