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Recognition at last for unsung minority war heroes in Pakistan

Family members and church leaders struggled to get a street corner named after Catholic air force veteran Cecil Chaudhry

Recognition at last for unsung minority war heroes in Pakistan

Major General Agha Masood Akram, director-general of the Army Institute of Military History, briefs an interfaith youth delegation on March 17. (Photo: Christopher Sharaf)

Published: May 23, 2022 06:20 AM GMT

Updated: May 25, 2022 02:49 AM GMT

Group Captain (retired) Cecil Chaudhry, a Pakistani Catholic, distinguished himself as a fighter pilot, educationist and rights activist but his family had to struggle to get a road named after him.

Chaudhry was a winner of top bravery medals for his services during wars with India in 1965 and 1971. He was posthumously honored with the President’s Pride of Performance Award in 2013.

The city district government in Lahore decided to rename a section of Lawrence Road next to Sacred Heart Cathedral and two other Catholic schools after the war hero's death in 2012.

“We had suggested a new road be named after my father. Lawrence Road was chosen because he had served as a principal of St. Anthony’s High School located there for 14 years,” said Cecil Shane Chaudhry, who shares his father’s first name.

He told UCA News how even this proved a tough task as the renaming of the road was compared with Lahore’s Shadman Square being named after Bhagat Singh, a legendary Sikh freedom fighter from the pre-independence era.

Fundamentalists in Pakistan are opposed to non-Muslims hailed as independence or war heroes and town hall administrations are often reluctant to decide such issues.

“People generally know of celebrated heroes like Cecil Chaudhry. But that day we learned about many unknown heroes. Sadly, there wasn’t a single woman among them”

But in 2014 the Pakistan Air Force finally joined the Chaudhry family and Catholic leaders to unveil a plaque dedicating a street corner to the memory of Cecil Chaudhry.

The Army Institute of Military History (AIMH) in Rawalpindi recently took a step further and for the time in its history invited an interfaith youth delegation to its headquarters on March 17.

The officials recognized the sacrifices of some 20 Christian martyrs and the distinguished service of 34 Christians.

“People generally know of celebrated heroes like Cecil Chaudhry. But that day we learned about many unknown heroes. Sadly, there wasn’t a single woman among them,” said 21-year-old Jennifer Joseph, a quality control manager with an Islamabad-based company who was part of the delegation.

Joseph felt the state must highlight the contributions of non-Muslims in a society where religious discrimination and prejudices pose a big challenge. Young people from minority communities struggle to find decent job opportunities as a result.

Non-Muslims make up only about 3 percent of the 220 million people in the Islamic republic. Christian and other minorities often face violent persecution by fundamentalist groups.

In a 2001 interview, Cecil Chaudhry pointed out the discrimination in the armed forces, which started soon after General Ayub Khan took power in 1958.

The discrimination was initially restricted to the army as “many generals felt that it would not do if a Christian general one day stood up and took power in Pakistan,” he said.

But the Pakistan Army is now taking an inclusive approach, said Christopher Sharaf, a project officer at the Christian Study Centre in Rawalpindi who led the interfaith youth delegation to the AIMH. 

“They want to recognize the services of the religious minorities in armed forces and encourage youth to join the mainstream. Now there is the realization of taking all citizens on board,” he told UCA News.

“Let me tell you that the Pakistan Army is a national army. It’s not true that army can be joined only by Muslims because we are a Muslim country”

For the first time in the Islamic nation’s history, a Catholic priest and Protestant pastor will be allowed to attend next month's national workshop on the security situation in Balochistan.

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military's media wing, has often called for national integration. In 2017, its director-general, Major General Asif Ghafoor, said that every Pakistani can serve the army irrespective of his or her religion.

He was reacting to an army officer-turned-politician’s tirade in the lower house of parliament against the Ahmadi community and seeking a ban on their induction into the armed forces.

“Let me tell you that the Pakistan Army is a national army. It’s not true that army can be joined only by Muslims because we are a Muslim country,” stated Ghafoor.

In a first, Dr. Kailash Kumar and Dr. Anil Kumar became the first Hindu officers in the history of the army to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 2019.

Cecil Shane Chaudhry, who is the South Asia deputy team leader of Christian Solidarity Worldwide UK, lauded the efforts of the military establishment.

“We never complained against the institution that acknowledges the services of minority officers. However, problems arise when those with illustrious careers are denied positions of strategic importance and government officials, with a biased mindset, call the shots,” he told UCA News.

Chaudhry blamed discriminatory constitutional articles like 41 and 91 that bar non-Muslims from getting elected as president or prime minister and a non-Muslim member of parliament having to swear to protect an undefined Islamic ideology for the current situation.

“Such laws result in ‘otherization’ and deny minorities their rightful place despite years of hard work and dedication. The unwritten rules inspire the chain of command,” he said.

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