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Protests in Pakistan for ‘liberation’ of Christian college

Nationalization denounced as ‘a serious attempt to sabotage the rights of religious minorities’

Protests in Pakistan for ‘liberation’ of Christian college

More than 50 pastors, lawyers and Christian activists protest on Oct. 11 in Lahore against the nationalization of Edwardes College. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)

Christians in Pakistan have launched a nationwide protest after the oldest missionary education institution in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province was nationalized.

“Injustice from the Movement for Justice — where is the order of this sacred land?” states a black banner on the gate of Mission Hospital in provincial capital Peshawar.

Similar statements have been emblazoned on Christian establishments across the city since an Oct. 1 ruling by the Peshawar High Court, which declared that from now on Edwardes College will become a nationalized educational institution run by a board of governors formed by the KPK government.

“The petitioner is not correct that Edwardes College is a private Christian college fully funded by its own resources, thus giving it a religious color,” declared a recent application to the High Court by the chief secretary to KPK governor Shah Farman.

“The respondent government has been granting lavish funds to the college from 1974 till 2000 on a regular basis.”

The college was initially a missionary school founded by the Church Missionary Society in 1853. It was renamed Edwardes High School and upgraded to the status of a college in 1900 and has been functioning ever since as a private institution officially managed by the Church of Pakistan, Peshawar Diocese.

The institute is spread over 13 acres and has about 2,200 students, most of them Muslims, plus a chapel and a mission house. Catholic and Protestant churches currently run 17 schools in the province.  

Church of Pakistan Bishop Humphrey Peters of Peshawar, who is also the vice-chairman of the college, has accused the governor of illegally interfering in the college’s administrative affairs.

“Our institutions are our identity. We pray that they remain a blessing for the whole country. The recent verdict is an insult to the Church. It will spread fires everywhere,” he said.

“We appeal to the government to keep their hands off this church property. Bishops have always led its executive management and pastors worked hard to maintain the high standards of education.”

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According to former human rights minister Khalil Tahir Sindhu, the KPK government had set itself as a “direct party” against church administration. “This is a serious attempt to violate minority rights,” he said. “The government can nationalize [the college’s] administration but it cannot bring church properties within its fold. We shall file an appeal in the Supreme Court.”

The controversies

Schools managed under the aegis of the Church of Pakistan have staged protests in several cities against the nationalization of Edwardes College.

Christian social media users have been vocal in their support for the stance taken by the Peshawar Church and have demanded the resignation of the chairman of Edwardes College’s board of governors with the hashtags #RemoveFarmanShah and #RemoveKPKGovernor.

The controversy over the administration of the college started after American missionaries left in 2014 and a retired Christian brigadier was appointed its first Pakistani principal. Malak Naz, a Muslim academician, took the case to the High Court in 2016, challenging the appointment of a Christian as principal of the college.

Naz said he had been shortlisted for the job but didn’t attend his interview. “The appointment was the outcome of political maneuvering and pressure. It was not made in accordance with the law,” he said. His appeal also questioned whether Edwardes College was a private institution or an autonomous body funded by the provincial government.

Last year a former student filed an application with the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) claiming irregularities in the college finances. Media reports said the principal had acquired a letter from the Church Mission Society in Britain authorizing him to continue as caretaker of the college even though he had previously been removed.

Faculty members and heads of departments accused the principal of victimizing the teaching staff and said several teachers who had been on contracts were made “daily wagers.”

Bishop Peters denied these allegations. “The military-trained principal was simply enforcing discipline and verifying some teachers’ degrees,” he said. “I never threatened staff. That is not our culture.”

Guaranteed in the constitution

The federal government nationalized all church schools and colleges in Punjab and Sindh provinces in 1972. From 1985 to 1995, it then denationalized them, selling them to new private owners without offering any compensation to the previous owners. One church school and a college still remain in government hands in Karachi. Similarly, three missionary schools, now in a dilapidated condition, remain beyond the control of the minority Christian community in Punjab province.

In 2012, The Lahore Development Authority bulldozed the Gosha-e-Aman (Corner of Peace) Institute, managed by Lahore Archdiocese. Spread on more than 8,000 square meters, the missionary institute housed a school, a chapel, a home for old people and a laboratory run by Caritas Pakistan.

Two years later, at a meeting of his ruling party’s central committee, Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly stated that “the rights of minorities shall be honored as guaranteed in the constitution. Institutes like Edwardes College shall not be taken over and the features and Christian character of the college shall be maintained.” 

The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), the Catholic Church's human rights body in Pakistan, has expressed its “serious concern over the illegal occupation of Edwardes College.”

NCJP chairman Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi issued a joint statement on Oct. 10 with NCJP executive director Cecil Shane Chaudhry and NCJP national director Father Emmanuel Yousaf (Mani) denouncing the “takeover” of the college.

“In 1972, when all the private institutions were nationalized, Edwardes College was also proposed for nationalization but this was resisted, so its independent status as a private institution was acknowledged and maintained,” they said.

“The commission strongly condemns this illegal action by the KPK government and demands that it denationalizes Edwardes College and many other educational institutions, such as Gordon College (Rawalpindi) Murray College (Sialkot) and all others owned by the Church and Christian community.

“This is a serious attempt to sabotage the rights of religious minorities and it is a principal violation of rights of religious minorities enshrined in constitution of Pakistan.

“Such actions by the government undermine the Church and Christian community’s work for the progress of Pakistan. The government should acknowledge our service to the nation in many areas, particularly health and education, instead of illegally grabbing our properties.” 

Archbishop Arshad told ucanews that the Church wanted to continue working for the community but he again appealed to the KPK government to revoke its order for the nationalization of Edwardes College.

“These actions can affect the quality and standard of education of the respective institution,” he said.

The Pakistan Catholic Bishops' Conference told ucanews: “The process of education must not stop due to political intervention. The government should immediately address whatever issues hurt the sentiments of the minority community.”

This video examines reasons for the protest:

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