by Joe Bollig
LEAWOOD — Archbishop Evarist Pinto, prelate of the Archdiocese of Karachi, readily acknowledges that Christians represent only a tiny minority of the population of Pakistan.
But he doesn’t let that worry him — or stop him.
“Minority — we don’t like to use that word again and again,” said Archbishop Pinto, who visited Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood from June 21 to 30. The archbishop was here to thank parishioners for contributing to construction of a new minor seminary in his diocese.
“We are also part of the larger community,” he continued. “We are Pakistani. Our people contribute . . . to the progress and development of the country.”
Because Pakistan is 97 percent Muslim, the contributions of Pakistan’s tiny Christian community often do not make the headlines. Instead, rather harrowing stories of violence and persecution do: riots, rape, harassment, police brutality, and coercive proselytizing.
The world was reminded of this reality when governmental minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, was murdered on March 2 because of his activism against Pakistan’s notorious, discriminatory “blasphemy laws.”
Life for the minority Christians can be difficult, especially in certain rural areas, said Archbishop Pinto.
But incidents of violence and discrimination, although tragic, are only part of the story. There is also a great deal of positive Christian and Muslim interaction, said the archbishop.
“In Karachi (a large port city on the Arabian Sea, in the southern part of Pakistan), we don’t have this big problem living with Muslims,” the archbishop said. “We grow up together. Our children study together. We work together.”
“Sometimes it can happen,” he continued. “Some of your young people working under Muslims can be harassed, ‘Why don’t you become Muslim?’ But generally in Karachi we respect each other and live together in apartment houses with great respect and tolerance.”
In fact, Christians are often respected for their work ethic and honesty, especially in certain economic sectors like banking. There is widespread appreciation of the beneficial impact that Christian institutions have on the nation, especially Christian hospitals and schools.
“Proof of this is that most of our leaders, the Cabinet, all went to our Catholic schools,” said the archbishop.
Archbishop Pinto was born in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, on the western coast of India. His family decided to live in Pakistan after the end of British rule in 1947, and subsequent partition of British India into Hindu-majority India, and Muslim-majority Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The archbishop’s family history, and that of Christianity in South Asia, reflects a variety of influences stretching from antiquity to the era of European colonialism, and then on into modern times.
Within Pakistan, there are ancient Christian communities with roots in the Nestorian, Assyrian, and Eastern Orthodox churches.
There are also churches — Protestant and Catholic — that were founded there during the period of British colonial rule. Catholic missionaries from Britain, Belgium, Holland and the United States established several parishes.
Now, in more recent years, Pakistan has seen the advent of Pentecostal churches — often referred to as sects.
Today, the 1.3 million Catholics of Pakistan are organized into six dioceses and one apostolic vicariate.
Pakistan’s Christians and Muslims often face the same problems, such as finding adequate employment and education. And life beyond the opportunities city life can offer can be harder on both.
“In cities like Karachi, people come there to find jobs and send their children to school, join a community and parish,” said the archbishop. “But, in contrast, in the interior provinces, in Sindh or Punjab, life can be more difficult — economic and social.”
Despite these difficulties and challenges, the outlook for the faith is far from dismal.
The number of seminarians continues to grow — so much so that the archbishop just recently completed the construction of a new, larger minor seminary. And, despite discrimination, the Catholic population is growing as well.
Moreover, the Catholic Church in Pakistan is about to launch its first satellite-based Catholic television channel, appropriately named “Good News.”
Even the assassination of Bhatti points to something good about the Catholic Church in Pakistan.
“He was a man who was very deeply rooted in his Christian faith and tradition — he came from a Catholic village in the middle of the Punjab,” said the archbishop.
In a homily he gave at Curé of Ars, Archbishop Pinto quoted Bhatti: “I am a disciple of Christ who gave his life for us; I know the meaning of the cross. I am ready to sacrifice my life for the cause of my people.”
Bhatti lives on as an example and symbol for Pakistani Christians.
“I think he is a role model for us now, especially our youth,” said Archbishop Pinto. “He did not marry. He did not think of his own future. For the church to produce such people is a great thing. . . . Our church can also produce men of caliber, of strong faith who are dedicated to the community.”
Pakistani Catholics are looking forward to a future where they will move beyond the model of the European missionary. The Catholic bishops of Pakistan don’t want their flock to always be on the receiving end. They want some self-sufficiency.
“It is our contention that any church and community can also contribute,” he said.
The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences decided 20 years ago to try a new way of being church. They’d keep the traditional Catholic parish, but also organize their people into smaller communities — basic ecclesial communities.
“For us, it is the road map of the apostles, who left small communities in Corinth, Athens and Rome,” the archbishop said.
“Jesus himself called the Twelve to be around him,” he continued. “Challenges surround us, but I think with small communities we can meet those challenges better than a big church or as individuals. We need the support of one another.”