Updated: November 05, 2019 02:32 AM GMT
An elderly Pakistani Christian asylum seeker from Lahore prays at a Catholic church in Bangkok. (ucanews photo)
When on Nov. 21 Pope Francis officiates at a Holy Mass in a Bangkok sports stadium during his three-day apostolic visit to Thailand, tens of thousands of Catholics from across the kingdom will be there to celebrate with him.
Several devout Catholics may not be among them, however, much as they might love to join.
The reason is prosaic. By venturing outdoors to attend the Mass in person, these believers would run the risk of being detained by authorities.
They are Pakistani Christian asylum seekers who fled their homeland in fear for their lives in recent years. They were driven away by the increasingly militant form of Islam that has come to dominate the public sphere in Pakistan, putting further restraints on the rights and freedoms of religious minorities.
These Christians, many of whom are Catholic, are now living in Bangkok, waiting for a chance to relocate to a welcoming third country. Refused to be recognized as bona fide refugees in Thailand, they are regarded as illegal migrants who are subject to arrest and deportation.
“Any time we go outside, we could be arrested,” says James (not his real name), an asylum seeker from Lahore who works part time, illegally, as an interpreter for a Bangkok-based Catholic organization.
“We are suffering. It’s very difficult. I’ve been in Bangkok for nearly seven years. It might take another year and a half before I can leave [for a third country].”
To avoid being incarcerated in overcrowded immigration detention centers, asylum seekers like James are hiding out in small apartments in low-rent condominiums, doing their best to stay out of sight. Even when they venture outdoors — to stack up on groceries at nearby convenience stores — they do so only briefly lest they bump into immigration police officers on their patrols.
“I only go out at night, after 10pm or 11pm, when there are fewer people on the streets,” James says. “When you live like us, you have a constant fear in your mind that makes you paranoid. You keep looking over your shoulder, thinking everyone is staring at you. It’s very damaging psychologically.”
Accused of defaming Islam
Because of such ingrained fears, some asylum seekers might not muster up the courage to travel across town from their hiding places on the outskirts of town to see Pope Francis during his Mass in central Bangkok.
“I don’t know if I can go and see His Holiness,” says another Pakistani Catholic asylum seeker who lives in Bangkok. “If I go there and [the authorities] stop me, that will be a big problem for me because I don’t have any documents.”
He fled Karachi after he was accused by some Muslims of defaming Islam, a capital offense in the conservative Muslim nation. He arrived in Thailand on a tourist visa, which has long since expired. He lives frugally on monthly handouts and food packages from Christian charities.
If he does decide not to go to the Mass, he will be able to follow it from a distance because it will be broadcast live on a Thai television channel.
“If I could meet Pope Francis in person, I’d ask him to please help us,” he says. “Pope Francis often speaks up for refugees. Maybe he could do that for us too.”
Asylum seekers like him are hardly alone in their predicament in Thailand’s bustling capital. There could be as many as 1,500 of his coreligionists from Pakistan living around Bangkok, most of them without proper refugee status.
“We’re very excited he’s coming,” says another asylum seeker who lives with his family in a tiny studio apartment in a working-class area of eastern Bangkok. “I really want to meet the Holy Father and tell him about the situation in Pakistan and our situation in Bangkok. But I know it’s impossible.”
Some asylum seekers are considering taking their chances to attend the Mass so as to be near Pope Francis. “If it’s possible for me, I’ll go,” says a Catholic electrician from Islamabad who has been staying in Bangkok since 2013. “If I could speak to him, I would ask the Holy Father, ‘Please help us get to a safe haven like you have helped Syrian Muslims’.”
The Christian asylum seeker is referring to the pope’s championing of Muslim migrants to Europe from countries like war-torn Syria. In recent years Pope Francis has repeatedly called on Europeans and their nations’ governments to welcome the more than one million migrants from the Middle East and Africa who have been flocking to the continent in droves with the aim of seeking asylum.
“If Pope Francis raises the issue [of our plight] in Bangkok, it could make a big difference for our community,” says the asylum seeker from Islamabad. “It would be very helpful to us.”
James, too, is planning to attend the Mass to see the pope. “I’ll be there,” he stresses. “I think every Catholic should be there.”
This is the second in a series of articles on Pope Francis' apostolic visit to Thailand and Japan and the issues around the journey.