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Pakistan

Promoting a Pakistani Jesus among persecuted Christians

Dominican priest stirs controversy with his images of a Kashmiri Christ

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Promoting a Pakistani Jesus among persecuted Christians

Dominican Father Siddique Mark Sunder with works (from right) featuring Geeta, Mary and Jesus, the Prodigal Son, Kashmiri Christ and a Sufi beggar. (Photo: Siddique Sunder)

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Father Siddique Mark Sunder carved a wooden crucifix last year during the military escalation between Pakistan and India following the suicide bombing in Indian-administered Kashmir.

The 24-inch cross is now in his bedroom. The former professor of cultural anthropology calls it the Kashmiri Christ.

“I was influenced by the ongoing violence in the neighboring country. The passion of Christ relates to the suffering of Kashmiris who deserve freedom as well as persecuted Christians in Pakistan. Also, the brown twigs make it closer to our complexion,” the 74-year-old Dominican told UCA News.

“Being a former British colony, we inherited a white Jesus. The missionaries couldn’t disobey the lords and change the disciplinary attitude or dress codes of local churches. The survival of our country lies in respect for diversity and dignity of human life.”

Father Sunder, prior of the Holy Rosary Priory in Faisalabad Diocese, referred to the violence-scarred region of Kashmir where an estimated 100,000 people have died, including civilians, militants and army personnel, after Muslim militants began an armed struggle in 1990 to free the region from Indian rule. India accuses Pakistan of supporting the militants.

The conflict dates back to 1947 when India and Pakistan become separate states after British rule ended. Both countries claim Kashmir in full and have fought at least three major wars and regularly exchange artillery and small-weapons fire across the disputed border.

Father Sunder has expressed social analysis and attitudes in two poetry books. His other sculptures include a wooden statue of Hindu goddess Radha, a wooden plaque of Mary and the baby Jesus, and a Sufi beggar. He has also produced stained glass images of the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary.

British influence

The Christian mission began in Pakistan in the 19th century when military chaplaincies started in 1843 in Punjab and about the same time in Sindh. The first to arrive were the Capuchins and the Mill Hill Missioners, followed by the Dominicans, Jesuits and Franciscans. Protestantism also began in the early 19th century following the arrival of the British.

All the Christian hospitals in Pakistan were built by foreign missionaries who introduced Western education and established the top schools in the country.

Most of the churches and chapels across the Islamic republic were built during British rule in the 19th century. The Gothic cathedrals of Lahore, which share the skyline with domes and minarets of the Mughal era, showcase Italian paintings of Christ in the 14 stations.

In July, Punjab’s Minister of Human Rights, Minorities Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Ijaz Alam Augustine asked the provincial government to recognize the two cathedrals as part of the national heritage. Both cathedrals need restoration, including new pipes, electrical systems and beautification work, he said. The year-long project will cost around 50 million rupees (US$300,000).

These include the Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart that was designed by Belgian architect Edouard Dobbeleers in the Byzantine style. The church, consecrated in 1907, was awarded the Belgian Heritage Abroad prize in 2015.

“Even in the 1960s, pictures and statues of the Sacred Heart showed Christ with European features, brown hair and blue eyes and fair skin. The faithful were attracted to this art and put up pictures in their homes showing the soft and sweet images of Jesus and Mary,” said Lawrence Saldanha, the former archbishop of Lahore.

The prelate remembered his first attempt, as a parish priest of the inner-city parish of Anarkali in Lahore, to present Christ in a local context.

“I commissioned a local artist from the parish to paint a sixth-century image of Christ with a stern and dark color. It was a vision of Revelation 11:15 , the Byzantine image of Christ the Pantocrater (Lord and Ruler of All Creation). I felt that this image of Christ was more suited to our Pakistani context where our poor Christians are struggling for their identity. I placed it high up on the main altar of the church, with a spotlight shining on it,” he said.

“The congregation was, of course, astonished to see this majestic image of an Eastern Christ. They had never seen anything like it before. I explained all the details of the image but they did not know what to make of it. It created a lot of controversy.

“After two months, the church committee requested that I remove the picture and place it on a side altar. It was there for a brief time. From there it was moved to another parish.”

In the late 70s, while serving as rector of Christ the King Seminary in Karachi, Saldanha tried again to promote a local depiction of Christ, dressed in shalwar kameez (traditional tunic and pleated trousers).

“This also provoked heated discussion. It was not accepted by most of the students,” he said.

According to Father Bonnie Mendes, former executive secretary of the Catholic bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace, the faithful in Pakistan reject priests who try to promote a South Asian face of Christ.

“They don’t want to believe it. They accepted the European version a long time ago,” he said.

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