Pakistani Catholic Yaqoob Masih is a controversial and polarizing figure among many Christians in Punjab province because of the statues he makes. Together with his family, the 53 year old has been creating religious sculptures for four decades in Warispura, a Christian suburb of Punjab's Faisalabad city. His creations sell like hotcakes in four bookshops run by the nation's Daughters of St. Paul
. His works can be seen in rural parishes. Yet, for many people, he is a sinner. "Sadly, most of the criticism comes from our own community," Masih told ucanews.com. Many pastors advise him to repent and be baptized again. "They say I promote idol worship," Masih complained, adding faith is not so fragile that it needs to be protected from imagined threats.
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Conservative Muslims in Pakistani also view statues as culturally offensive and anti-religious. Following India's independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Punjab's capital, Lahore, became a national cultural hub and inherited many historical monuments and statues of British and Indian personalities. However, almost all of them have disappeared. The challenges
During the Islamization period of military ruler Zia-ul-Haq
, a grand statue of Queen Victoria was in 1974 removed from the Punjab Assembly lawns and replaced with a wooden model of the Holy Quran. In 1950, a bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation, was pulled down and damaged during riots in Karachi, the capital of Sindh province. Likewise, the Pakistani Taliban
forbid artistic representation of living things in the name of Islamic fundamentalism. In 2007, the hard-line group dynamited a Buddha image carved during the seventh century on a cliff in the Swat Valley of northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The government earlier this year restored the carving, one of the largest of its kind in South Asia, with the help of Italian archaeologists. Last year, three 1,500-year-old Buddha statues were found in garbage at the National Museum in Karachi. Luckily, Masih has not faced opposition from local Muslims. The father of two has already booked a stall outside the National Marian Shrine in Mariamabad village of Punjab province that will host an annual Catholic pilgrimage from Sept. 7-9. He hopes to earn good profits by selling rosaries, miniature grottos, crucifixes and plaques inscribed with Biblical verses as well as statues of various saints. In the Christmas season, cribs are in demand with prices ranging up to more than US$240, still only about half the prices charged by church-run shops. Disposing off a broken or damaged statue poses a challenge for Masih and others. Pakistan has a strict blasphemy law
covering the "outraging of religious feelings" that applies to all religions and carries a fine or up to 10 years' imprisonment. Masih has to dispose of any unwanted statues in a way that does not pose a danger of the remnants being trampled on, something that would cause offense. The sculptor has to date not been able to establish his own permanent independent sales outlet. "I depend on Pauline nuns to sell the statues," he said. Protestant venues would not handle them, with many Protestants accusing the Catholic Church of idol worship, he added. Church response
To counter such criticism, the Catholic Bishops' Commission for Catechetics uses its Facebook page to create greater awareness and understanding. "Many pastors do not know the difference between an idol and a statue," one posting stated. The Jeremiah Education Centre, a Lahore-based Catholic association, supports artists including through non-formal education of children from poor slum families. Five parents, including widows, are now being trained to produce Christian sculptures, a skill that will help support them and their dependants. The centre believes that creating religious works is a dying art that needs to be preserved for future generations.