Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore celebrates evening Mass online via the Facebook page of Catholic TV. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry/UCA News)
The year 2020 will go down in history as the year of coronavirus, but for the Catholic Church in Pakistan, it marked a revival of the media ministry.
When the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of churches last March, many priests were forced to train in social media and take their parishes online by celebrating Masses on Facebook Live and initiating WhatsApp groups.
Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore dedicated the conference hall of the bishop’s house for a studio-cum-chapel, while Radio Veritas Asia (RVA) Urdu Service revamped its format to launch a news program — the first of its kind in Pakistan.
I revived the YouTube channel of Caritas Pakistan. Islamabad-Rawalpindi Diocese became a YouTuber last November with the launch of Ave Maria Catholic TV under the theme of “A journey of peace and hope.”
The efforts to spread spiritual awakening through electronic media are continuing. During an RVA board meeting on Feb. 8, Archbishop Joseph Arshad, chairman of the National Commission for Social Communications, approved sample TikTok videos based on hymns, Bible verses and quotes of the saints for evaluation.
For the first time, a session on media has been added in the ongoing formation of 75 young priests (five years into their priesthood) in Lahore Archdiocese.
“This is the biggest number we ever had in the history of the local Church,” Archbishop Arshad told me. “Diocesan directors of the Commission for Social Communications will be instructed to activate existing channels. The Church cannot afford to lose the media competition.”
About 16 Christian TV channels are operating in Pakistan. All share the common goal of evangelization, broadcasting prayers and church activities as well as dispelling misconceptions regarding Christianity. Their presenters use Urdu, the national language. Few of them report minority rights. Many are being managed by resourceful ministries. Their founder pastors can be commonly seen in colorful coats on the stage at healing crusades with wives wearing heavy makeup.
“It is a fact that most issues related to minorities are highlighted by the foreign media, and they reach Pakistan mostly through social media and are discussed in mainstream media,” said Peter Jacob, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice.
To check the facts about minorities’ complaints regarding Urdu media, UK-based Minority Concern Pakistan (MCP) followed two national Urdu newspapers’ front pages in June 2020. The survey revealed that not even a single news story regarding minority issues or their activities appeared on those pages.
“Smaller news items about non-Muslims were found in the middle pages. Although minority coverage is better in English newspapers, Urdu media is the main opinion maker. Christian TV channels in Pakistan are struggling, but they face challenges of mostly untrained communicators and sub-quality content. As a result, the community doesn’t rely on them,” MCP founder Aftab Mughal told a recent talk show.
Fear of blasphemy allegations and lack of interaction with Christian professionals in mainstream media further constrain their freedom of expression, according to other speakers.
Pastor Shahzad Saddique (center in orange coat) awards Praise TV staff members on the fifth anniversary of his channel on Nov. 5, 2020. (Photo supplied)
Mughal, a former executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Major Superiors Leadership Conference of Pakistan, suggested Christian TV channels in Pakistan raise their voices about national issues and contribute to national movements to escape their ghettoized situation.
The Pakistan Church addresses the misuse of blasphemy laws and persecution only through the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), its human rights body.
Other commissions have adopted a non-controversial approach. The National Commission for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism condemns misuse of blasphemy laws, but only if it occurs in other countries. The media ministry highlights good news, while Caritas Pakistan deals with development, and so on.
All these commissions can establish a platform with the cooperation of mainstream media organizations to hold seminars, discussions and debates on interfaith harmony. The new year offers them another chance to mend their broken ties with liberal civil society, human rights defenders and free thinkers, creating more space for church groups.
Punjab’s recently launched draft policy on interfaith harmony, the first of its kind in Pakistan, recommends the Punjab government use the Punjab Information Department and Directorate General of Press Information to motivate the media to be part of the "Harmonious, Tolerance and Safe Punjab for Everyone" campaign.
The survival of Christian media in Pakistan depends on the country’s complete transformation to a democratic state. More provinces should develop and ensure implementation of policies on interfaith harmony. Protection of minorities and journalists can help soften the image of our country. Right now, it is a dangerous place for them.
Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.