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Prejudice survives pandemic as Pakistan battles Covid-19

Rights workers claim biased organizations are hampering provision of food and supplies to non-Muslim minorities

Prejudice survives pandemic as Pakistan battles Covid-19

Bishop Indrias Rehmat of Faisalabad, Father Abid Tanveer (vicar general of Faisalabad Diocese) and Aneel Mushtaq (left) at the installation of a hand-washing facility at the entrance to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. (Photo: Aneel Mushtaq)

Pastor Irfan James was passing by a mosque in Shershah Colony in Lahore when the cleric announced the distribution of food by the district administration.

“I quickly shared the news with my neighbor, a mother of two who works as a maid in a nearby women’s hostel. However, when she submitted her identity card for registration, her family were denied the food items,” he said while adjusting his face mask and filming a Facebook Live video.

“Stay united and support each other. Raise your voice for your own people. We are still awaiting the promised aid.”  

Pastor James has been posting phone numbers of deserving families on social media since the Punjab government imposed a two-week lockdown in the province amid the coronavirus outbreak which has infected 1,597 people and claimed 14 lives in the country.

Saylani Welfare Trust in Karachi is skipping Hindu and Christian families in its door-to door-distributions. Similar clerics were cursing China for persecuting its Muslim minority. It is disappointing that prejudice survives the worldwide pandemic,” the pastor told UCA News.

Pakistan Minorities Teachers' Association sent a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan on March 28 urging him to take action against biased organizations and provide urgent food supplies to suffering minorities.

Last week he announced a 200-billion-rupee (US$1.2 billion) package involving relief for the underprivileged, business community, industry and farmers besides lowering fuel prices. One quarter of Pakistan’s population of over 200 million live below the poverty line and about seven million are daily wage earners.

Usman Buzdar, the chief minister of Punjab, announced that the state government will provide 4,000 rupees per family to 2.5 million households, adding that the virus was spreading in Punjab at a fast pace. Media reports say the mechanisms for these disbursements are still at the preliminary stage.

Punjab's Minister of Human Rights and Minority Affairs Ejaz Alam Augustine, along with the Youth Development Foundation (YDF), on March 28 distributed rations among 100 non-Muslims including transport workers and daily wage earners. Wearing green surgical masks, the affected families lined up at a distance of four feet apart at the YDF office.

“All of them had lost their sources of livelihood due to the ongoing lockdown. Young volunteers of YDF are working without any discrimination,” Augustine said in a press statement.  

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However, Asif Munawar, a member of Jhang's district committee of the Human Rights and Minorities Affairs Department, complained of discrimination in aid distribution.

“Government officials are continuously ignoring poor minorities. The deputy commissioners should be notified about adding non-Muslims to the list of beneficiaries for equal opportunity,” he said.   

In Karachi last week, locals held a rally against an NGO suspected of being Ahmadis. “We reject the rations of Ahmadis,” shouted protesters as police escorted a truck loaded with bags of groceries out of the area.

“The attacked aid workers didn’t belong to our community. Illiteracy is our biggest virus. The clerics defying government directives on congregational prayers need their software updated,” said an Ahmadi spokesman.

According to Saleem Iqbal, national director of the Lahore-based Care Council for Human Rights, the ongoing crisis is a test for local churches.

“They can help the community survive the lockdown. Thousands of NGOs are registered in Christian slums of major cities. However, a few are actively working for welfare. All available resources must be exhausted in love for humanity. We are looking for leaders like Mother Teressa and Abdul Sattar Edhi [a Muslim humanitarian],” he said.

“Churches should step up to serve parishioners instead of looking for foreign funding. Pastors leading comfortable lives are distant from ground realities. Church properties and vacant diocesan lands can be sold to establish a fund for poor siblings facing a hard time. They must choose between housing society or dead bodies. Desperate people can become criminals.” 

Iqbal was referring to a man who committed suicide on March 28 in Karachi after a doctor advised him to take a coronavirus test. The Christian father of two isolated himself and was jobless for several days due to closure of his business, claimed his pregnant wife. According to police, the test was negative after examination of the body at a civil hospital.

Church response

Meanwhile, Cardinal Joseph Coutts has canceled Holy Week, Easter Masses and services in parishes of Karachi Archdiocese. “These celebrations will be streamed live from St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Good News Catholic TV,” he stated in a bulletin.

Church leaders joined the nation in paying tribute to the doctors and paramedics battling the epidemic in the country. White flags were raised in different parishes on March 27 at 6pm on government directives.

Capuchin friars in Lahore organized a Holy Hour, lit candles and offered prayers at St. Francis Friary, Lahore. A similar prayer gathering was held at the Capuchin Formation House in Karachi.

In Sahiwal in Punjab province, four Dominican nuns and youth groups held placards and white flags at Sacred Heart Church. “We love you and support you with our prayers,” said a card by Father Zahid Augustine, the parish priest.

Executive secretaries of Caritas Pakistan paid tribute to medical teams in a video message titled “Precaution is better than cure.” The video showed Caritas staff praying in front of several cathedrals. The organization is distributing safety kits in bishop houses and diocesan commissions based in local cathedrals.    

Lahore Archdiocese distributed 1,000 face masks under its “Make masks, save humanity” campaign last week. The distribution was held after the training of 32 women at the bishop’s house.

“All of them were asked to donate the first mask to a person who they had considered an enemy. Homemade sanitizers are also being distributed. Caritas Pakistan has been tasked to arrange the distribution of food items. "Our churches remain open for personal prayers,” said Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore.

Bishop Indrias Rehmat of Faisalabad, who is quarantined in his house, urged the community to stay positive. “Our priests are helping unemployed parishioners. We are encouraging people to treat Covid-19 like any other disease and consult physicians in case of any symptoms,” he said.

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