by Olivia Martin
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — “It may be quite dangerous for me if you publish the article with my name,” said the 24-year-old Catholic man from the Punjabi region of Pakistan, who will be referred to as Samuel Sadiq.
While this may sound like a script from an espionage film, it’s nothing more than a daily precaution for Sadiq.
And it’s not because he’s party to international espionage. It’s because he’s Christian.
For the protection of those interviewed, all other names appearing in this article have been changed as well.
“Sometimes, when I tell Western people about the Pakistani Christians’ situation, it’s very hard to them to believe,” said Sadiq. “The Western media is sort of biased against the anti-Christian sentiment. They won’t even talk about the Christians who are suffering in Muslim countries.”
In Pakistan, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities are greatly discriminated against.
According to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American fact tank, the top 10 countries in the world where Christians most suffer persecution are Islamic states, with Pakistan ranked fourth.
“[As] we have canon law in the Catholic Church, the Muslims have Sharia law,” said Sadiq.
And Sharia law requires everyone who lives in an Islamic state to adhere to that law.
“Sometimes, the Muslims falsely accuse Christians of committing blasphemy so that they can punish us or have their own personal agendas [fulfilled],” said Sadiq.
He pointed to one of the few examples of Christian persecution in the name of blasphemy that broke through to be reported by Western media: the case of Asia Bibi.
In 2009, Bibi — a poor, illiterate farm worker and a Christian — drank water from the same glass as the Muslim workers. She was accused of blasphemy, arrested and sentenced to death by hanging in 2010. In October 2018, she was acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for insufficient evidence.
“This is just one example,” said Sadiq. “It’s extremely difficult to be Christian here.”
Christ comes through the concrete
Sadiq was born into a devout Catholic family and baptized a Catholic a few days after his birth.
“When I would wake up [as a child], I would hear my mom muttering Hail Marys, praying the rosary early in the morning,” he said.
From a young age, Sadiq was educated in a convent school in Jhelum run by Irish Presentation Sisters.
“I studied in a Catholic school for almost 10 years,” he said. “At that time, I didn’t know that it was going to be really helpful, but I’m really thankful to the Irish nuns that they forced us to speak in English.”
Sadiq said his education and fluency in English has opened the world to him, including his current medical studies.
“If it were not for the Catholic Church, I wouldn’t be as educated as I am now,” he said. “I owe everything to the Catholic Church.”
This gift of language and education has led Sadiq to be an advocate for fellow persecuted Christians — and has brought him many unexpected graces.
In March 2014, Sadiq posted on the Facebook page of International Christian Concern, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for and assists persecuted Christians. Canadian Eileen Stevens read his post and reached out to him, beginning a friendship that endures today.
“My new life was given to me by Eileen,” said Sadiq. “She has been extremely and exceptionally great to me.”
Stevens’ generosity continues to fuel Sadiq’s success: It is she who is sponsoring his postgraduate studies in medical radiology technology, encourages his purchase of Catholic books through her Amazon account and, most importantly, treats him like family.
“If there is any person I love most after Christ and his holy Mother, it’s my Eileen mother,” said Sadiq. “She never lets me lack anything. She’s not even Catholic, but she wants me to be as devout as possible . . . and answer the people who ask me questions about the Christian faith.”
The reality of discrimination
Despite the desire to remain in Pakistan and improve the situation for Christians, Sadiq can’t deny his desire to find refuge elsewhere.
“Sometimes, I feel really sorry I was born in this country,” he said. “When anything happens in the Western countries, [Muslims] retaliate by attacking us. They think, ‘The West is Christian. So if we attack the Christians in our country, it means in some way we are attacking the West.’”
Sadiq has applied for a Canadian visa four times — and even with Stevens willing to sponsor him, each application has been denied.
“I don’t know why they would refuse Christians,” he said. “It may sound strange but, when the Muslims apply, they get the visas in a matter of days. I personally know Muslims who have applied for the visa with bogus, fake documents and still ended up getting visas.”
Despite the dire situation of Christians in Pakistan, Sadiq and his friends find life fiercely worth living.
“Catholics in Pakistan are despised, we are discriminated against and are victims of many bombings and fires in our churches,” said Zacchaeus Masih, 27, of Jhelum.
“Despite all of these troubles and persecutions, we are faithful to our Catholic faith,” he added. “We would rather die than reject our faith. Our faith is something worth dying for.”
Michael Ilyas, 29, also from Jhelum, agreed.
For Ilyas, even his Christian first name has been a source of discrimination.
“I once went for an interview at a restaurant, and . . . I mentioned my name,” he said. “The first question [the manager] asked me was, ‘Are you a Christian?’ Upon getting the affirmative answer, he refused me right away.”
Through the grace of a great faith, Ilyas said he refuses to convert to Islam though many attempts have been made to convert him.
“The Catholic Church has been faithful to me my entire life, and I am determined to remain faithful to the church,” he said. “Being a Catholic in Pakistan is in itself a testimony.
“I am grateful to the Lord that I am Catholic.”
Hoping against hope
Now that it is 2019, young people around the world are preparing to journey from all over the world to Panama City for the 16th World Youth Day, Jan. 22-27.
Sadiq has only once left Pakistan — to attend World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, in 2016.
And he can’t wait to be part of WYD again.
“When I arrived to Poland, it was actually quite funny because it was a sort of cultural shock,” he said. “I was really shy at that time. I was not confident but, as soon as I went to Poland — I was just there for 15 days — [it] rejuvenated me and gave me new life.
“I’ve been extremely confident since. I owe everything to [WYD in] Poland.”
Sadiq said his confidence grew so much during that time that, while attending WYD, he accepted an invitation made by Dominican monks to speak about the persecution of Christians in Pakistan.
“The church was jam-packed,” said Sadiq, “and I couldn’t believe myself. Is that really [me], who is so shy, talking to a jam-packed church?”
Sadiq is joined by eight others who are trying to go to WYD 2019 in Panama and share in the witness of faith made by the thousands of youth there — and for the chance to share their experience living Christianity in Pakistan with others.
But the way hasn’t been as smooth as they had hoped.
“All eight of us got visas to Panama,” Sadiq explained, “but now the difficulty is transit visas.”
Because there are no direct flights from Pakistan to Panama, the group must apply for transit visas that will allow them to make a stopover in the United States.
Sadiq anxiously awaits his interview with the U.S. embassy in early January with the hopes of securing his transit visa.
“The Pakistani passport is the second least powerful passport in the world,” he said, “so no country wants to give us the visa. I’m just waiting for God to open a door.”
But whether the group is able to attend WYD or not, they will continue living their faith intensely with the hope of one day being able to live it without persecution.“Despite the persecutions, we are so strong and devout,” Sadiq said. “Our faith is worth dying for.”