Faith sustains Pakistani Catholics, says visiting bishop

Bishop Anthony Lobo of the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, Pakistan speaks at the rectory of Immaculate Conception Parish, Revere June 25. The Pilot/Gregory L. Tracy

REVERE — Bishop Anthony Lobo of the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, Pakistan, is accustomed to turmoil.

Speaking at the rectory of Immaculate Conception Parish in Revere, one of the local churches he is visiting to raise awareness of the situation in Pakistan, his calm demeanor belies the difficulties he and his flock face in his native land.

Approximately 2 percent of Pakistan’s population is Christian, and of those, only half are Catholic. Another 2 percent is Hindu; the remaining 96 percent of the country is Muslim.

In Bishop Lobo’s diocese, which includes the contested region of Kashmir, the numbers are even more stark. Of the 35 million people living within his diocese, fewer than 170,000 are Catholic, according to the most recent information given on the Web site CatholicHierarchy.org. The same Web site indicates there are only 16 priests to minister to the Catholics in the diocese.

“Christians are marginalized in our society,” explained Bishop Lobo, due in part to the history of the Church in Pakistan.

According to the bishop, when missionaries first came to the Pakistani people, only the peasants, the poor, and the slaves accepted Christianity. Because no wealthy or powerful Muslim or Hindu families ever converted, the religion became identified with the poor, those who were “on the fringes of society.”

In addition, he said, “there has always been the problem of identity. Because the West is Christian, and we are Christian, therefore we belong to the West.”

“We are the scapegoats for all the offences committed by the West,” stated Bishop Lobo.

In one widely publicized example, following the invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Al-Qaeda leadership demanded its members kill two Pakistani Christians for each Muslim killed by the U.S. military.

In the face of such persecution one might suppose many Christians would find it hard to hold on to their faith, mused Bishop Lobo. But, he said, in fact the opposite is true.

“There are more Christians going to church now than before,” he declared. “There are some who have said that if we have to die, this is a good way to do it.”

This attitude, the bishop said, is the legacy of those who first came to preach the Gospel in his country.

“The missionaries have sown the seeds of faith very deep in the Pakistani people,” stressed Bishop Lobo.

Many Christians have been persecuted because of that faith in the past few years, such as 19-year-old Javed Anjum, a Catholic who is hailed as a modern martyr.

According to Bishop Lobo, Anjum was abducted after drinking water from a spigot outside a mosque in the western district of Toba Tek Singh. Several Muslims tortured Anjum in an effort to convince him to renounce his faith. Five days later, Anjum was taken to a nearby hospital where he died, still firmly resolute in his faith.

Despite the often tumultuous relationship between the Christian population and the wider Pakistani society, Bishop Lobo pointed to several improvements made in the past few years, particularly after the 2005 earthquake that devastated the Kashmir region of Pakistan.

“In Kashmir, the general attitude was not very friendly toward Christians,” he recounted. The region has no Catholic cemeteries or schools; Christians were not allowed to own land to build houses.

However, after the earthquake, the Church was the first to respond, “to come to the aid of these people” hardest hit by the disaster.

“We managed to do quite a lot,” Bishop Lobo said, praising the generosity of many people throughout the world who donated money, goods, and even personally went to his diocese to volunteer their services.

“Because of what we did, the attitudes have changed,” he said, noting that the Church is being allotted land for cemeteries and individual families are being given land to build houses. In addition, Bishop Lobo’s diocese will begin a Boys Town, which will house and educate 200 Kashmiri orphans.

In the wider society, Bishop Lobo marked three advances which denote a change in the perception of Christians in Pakistan: that of the de-nationalization of schools, the change to the electoral policies of the country and the defeat of a bill that would have imposed “Sharia” or Islamic law on the country.

According to the bishop, Christian education in Pakistan was abolished in 1972 when all schools were nationalized. For 20 years, Catholic bishops as well as Protestant leaders petitioned the government to allow them to re-establish Christian schools.

In 1992, the first school was allowed to reopen and, by now, nearly every Christian school which was closed in 1972 has been reopened. In addition, Bishop Lobo is expected to open the first Catholic university in the country — Ave Maria College of Professional Studies — in September 2007.

In the political arena, the Christians have seen some improvements as well, Bishop Lobo said.

According to the bishop, Christians are allotted four parliamentary seats. Historically, Christians were only allowed to vote for these four seats, regardless of their geographic region.

“If powerless and helpless people can only elect other powerless and helpless people, there’s no way we can ever stop a law from being passed,” Bishop Lobo affirmed.

However, after much lobbying on the part of the Catholic Church, “the electoral system has change,” he added.

Now all Pakistanis, regardless of their religion, vote for representatives from their geographical district.

“We have become valuable because our votes now count,” Bishop Lobo smiled. “Now in a close election, we can hold the balance of power.”

Bishop Lobo also lauded the work done by Christian leaders in defeating a 2003 attempt to impose Sharia law, that is, Islamic law, in the country.

“We were very apprehensive when the Sharia bill was first discussed,” admitted Bishop Lobo. The bill would have forced a strict code of conduct, based on the Koran, on all Pakistani citizens for the first time in the country’s history.

According to Bishop Lobo, many Muslims were initially in favor of the bill. However, after Christians and others “spelled out the implications” Sharia law would have on all Pakistanis, particularly women, the bill was defeated in parliament.

With all the difficulties in his home country the work ahead might seem daunting. However, Bishop Lobo is constantly looking forward.

After leaving Massachusetts, he will fly to Valencia, Spain to take part in the World Meeting of the Families. The defense of the family is an issue the bishop feels very strongly about.

“[Modern contraception] makes a woman into a chemistry bottle,” he declared. “Women are reduced to being an object, and that in turn, harms the family.”

In addition to his speaking engagements and attending meetings, the bishop serves on the board for Oasis magazine, headquartered in Cairo, Egypt. The magazine, which is in its 4th edition, focuses on the need for interreligious dialogue and peace.

But perhaps his most treasured moments are when he is teaching in the minor seminary he has started in his diocese.

“The happiest time in my life is when I am teaching those young men,” he said.

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