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Religious controversies put cricket on a sticky wicket

Distasteful comments mar Pakistan's winning streak in the T20 World Cup

Religious controversies put cricket on a sticky wicket

Pakistan's Asif Ali plays a shot during the ICC men’s T20 World Cup cricket match between Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium on Oct. 29. (Photo: AFP)

The cricket craze had taken me over even before Pakistan’s third consecutive win in the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup. Most of it has to do with the stories behind the scenes.

The first win was scored after Pakistan crushed India by 10 wickets and broke its losing streak against its arch-rival. Victory over New Zealand was a matter of national pride following the Kiwis’ shocking abandonment of their Pakistan tour in September over a security alert.

My heart went out to Afghanistan’s team that made it to the UAE despite horrible circumstances back home since the Taliban takeover. May peace prevail in our plucky neighbor.

Meanwhile, Pakistanis continue celebrations at home, enjoying a pleasant distraction from increasing inflation and religious fundamentalism. A Christian composer in Faisalabad Diocese released a celebration song.

Special prayers were held for our cricket team on the directives of Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore. The prelate shared his passion on state-run Pakistan Television before the Pakistan-India clash.

“Whenever Pakistan plays against India, the whole nation is prayerful and full of emotions. Our prayers are with our team. Insha'Allah [God willing], this trophy will come to Pakistan,” he said cheerfully, raising his fist.

Today was our final. The sentiments of Muslims worldwide, including those in Hindustan, were with the Pakistani team. Congratulations to the Muslim world

And then Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed brought a distasteful element and declared that Pakistan’s win over India was a victory for Islam.

“Today was our final. The sentiments of Muslims worldwide, including those in Hindustan, were with the Pakistani team. Congratulations to the Muslim world. Islam Zindabad [long live],” he said in a video released on Twitter.

The bizarre statement prompted a storm on social media.

“I remained in prostration during the match and am thankful to God. The statement of Sheikh Rasheed has hurt me. Pakistan’s win is for all Pakistanis irrespective of their religion,” Shireen Aslam, a former member of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s minority wing in Attock district of Khyber Pakhtukhwa province, said in a Facebook post. 

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The statement brought back memories of a Covid-19 notice I saw in a department store in Lahore. “O Allah, save all Muslims from coronavirus,” it stated.

These are not isolated incidents. The state has successfully garnered such sentiments since the Islamization of 1980s. It has resulted in the alienation of Pakistani minorities. Father Andrew Nisari, former rector of Lahore Cathedral who now lives in New Jersey, is rooting for India.

“Please don’t be disheartened. India has the potential. I am with Virat Kohli. Please team India stand up and surprise the world,” he stated in a social media post.    

Father Khalid Rashid Asi, director of the Diocesan Commission for Harmony and Interfaith Dialogue in Faisalabad Diocese, also criticized the all-Pakistani Muslim team in a Facebook post tagged to the archbishop of Lahore.

“Dear bishop, do we have a national cricket team? You are a good player and deeply love cricket since the days of seminary. We are proud of your interest in this cricket match. But you are supporting a team which can’t be labeled as national until it has representation of Christians, the biggest minority of Pakistan,” he stated.

“You are requested to make sure that Christian cricketers participate in the team. The nation will offer your payers and sweets. The addition of Yousuf Youhana was the result of hard work of the late Bishop John Joseph. I have proof.”    

My family used to wait and pray for the cricket star, born a Catholic, to make the sign of the cross on completing his hundred. In 2005, Youhana converted to Islam and adopted the name Mohammad Yousuf, depressing millions of minority Christians who used to cheer for the only Christian in the Pakistan team. I stopped watching cricket after he left.

Our church leaders should try to use their influence in promoting Christian talent in sports and other venues. A quota can help

A few years later, Yousuf was dropped repeatedly from the national squad over several controversies, including his stated desire to join the Indian Cricket League. The brilliant batsman hails from a poor family in Lahore and became one of a handful of Christians to play for Pakistan's national team.

In the past seven decades as a test-playing nation, Pakistan has been represented in international matches by only seven non-Muslim cricketers: five Christians and two Hindus.

In July, Zalmi Foundation partnered federal and provincial governments to organize the first Christian-centered Harmony Cricket League cup in Rawalpindi city. The HCL 2021, titled “Strengthening and connecting communities together,” will ensure the selection of a Christian player in the national team by 2023, claimed the organizers.

Players from the winning team as well as the man of the series will get exposure at the Pakistan Super League scheduled this month. Dioceses should cooperate with such groups to support Christian talent. Shortage of grounds is another challenge.

“We had to change several grounds for practice. Our youth couldn’t engage in a heated argument with Muslim cricketers occupying the playing area,” Father Sarfraz Simon, diocesan director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace in Islamabad-Rawalpindi Diocese, who led the runner-up team in HCL, told me. 

Despite the discouraging discourse, I join Pakistani Christians in rooting for the men in green. Stories around the T20 World Cup have awakened the avid cricket fan in me. Our church leaders should try to use their influence in promoting Christian talent in sports and other venues. A quota can help. Our players and prayers also matter.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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