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Pakistan’s Resilient Christians: Who they are, where they came from?

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Asif Aqeel |

For the last three consecutive years, terrorists have targeted Christians on every Easter. Suicide bombers in March 2015 hit two Sunday services in Youhanabad, the largest Christian neighborhood in Lahore; that left 17 worshippers dead and dozens injured. Volunteer church security guards didn’t let the bombers enter the inside of churches which saved dozens of lives.

In April 2016, the TTP, Pakistani brand of Taliban, targeted a park in Lahore on Easter day, killing at least 70, mostly Christians. Al-Jazeera reported that the TTP faction Jamaat-ul-Ahrar “claimed responsibility for the attack in the eastern city of Lahore and said that it was aimed at Christians.” Last year, in 2017, the Pakistan army timely intercepted an Islamic State (IS) trained couple a day before Easter from a nearby vicinity of Youhanabad. The couple was getting ready to target church services the next day.

Since 9/11, there has been huge terrorism on sectarian lines; over the years both Shiites and Sunnites worship places have been targeted. Along with them, Christians are the only religious minority that has been targeted. It began on October 18, 2001, with a terrorist attack on St. Dominic’s Church in Bahawalpur that left 17 worshippers dead and dozens injured. Since then several Christian worship places, hospitals, and schools have come under attack. But Pakistani Christians have, like always, shown huge resilience in the face of these attacks; they – an essential part of the Pakistani mosaic – refuse to be defined through the lens of these medieval barbarians.

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Pakistan Blasphemy Law

The Pakistani version of blasphemy law stems from the British Indian law enacted in 1860 and expanded in 1927.The British Raj law stated it was a crime to disrupt a religious assembly, trespass on a burial ground, pass degrading or insulting remarks on any religious belief or intentionally destroy a religious site or an object of worship. After the independence, Pakistan inherited the same set of laws.

However, between 1980 and 1986 during General Zia’s regime blasphemy laws was introduced through Sections 295-B implemented in 1982 (Defiling, etc., of Quran- life imprisonment) and 295-C implemented in 1986 (Use of derogatory remarks, spoken, written, directly or indirectly that defiles the name of Prophet Muhammad- mandatory death penalty and fine, however, trial must take place in court).

Pakistan’s Christian Community

The fanaticism of post 9/11 years is not the only challenge Christians have faced in Pakistan. But despite all myriad trials of adversity originating from history and religion, a good number of Christians have risen to prominence in Pakistan – becoming symbols of national pride. In the Pakistan Army, Major General (r) Peter Julian and Major General Noel Israel Khokhar achieved the highest ranks ever awarded to non-Muslims. Cecil Chaudhry, late Group Captain Pakistan Airforce, not only emerged as a national figure but also made a mark as humanist, educationist and a reformer par excellence.

In the field of music Saleem Raza, S. B. John and A Nayyer earned huge recognition. Benjamin Sisters literally defined an era of Pakistani sound and rhythm. Afia Nathaniel, the director of Dukhtar, and Ashir Azeem Gill, a civil servant turned director-producer of films (famous recently for “Maalik”) all come from the Christian community. Professor Christy Munir, Professor Sara Safdar, Professor Cusrow J Dubash, Dr. Mira Phailbus, Professor Bernadette Dean, and Professor Farzand Masih have made a mark as educationists. Dr. Mira Phailbus that remained principal of Kinnaird College, Lahore for almost four decades became the symbol of quality education in the country. But naming a few individuals may divert attention from the larger role Christians have played in Pakistan’s nation-building.

Christians make up about 1.5 percent of the total population and their highest concentration is in central Punjab. Those living in other parts of the country also often hail from Punjab. Tradition says that Jesus Christ’s Apostle Thomas evangelized as far as Taxila, but Christianity in the areas that are now in Pakistan was brought by western Protestant missionaries in the middle nineteenth century. Catholics arrived a few decades later.

In 1911, Catholics, the late entrants, were only 6 percent of the total Christian population in Punjab. In 1949, they were still only about 25% of Pakistan’s Christians but now they are probably half of all the Christian population. This happened largely due to setting up of schools, churches and residential colonies in urban areas like Youhanabad after Protestant missionaries had mostly retreated back to their countries.

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Who was Tara Masih?

At the time of Bhutto’s hanging Tara Masih was in Bahawalpur, he was flown to Rawalpindi on an official plane; this was the first time he had traveled by air. Upon reaching Rawalpindi, Masih was locked up in a room in the Rawalpindi Jail. He was paid Rs 25 as the official execution fee. Masih came from a very humble Christian background. He was a Punjabi, who came from a family whose historical profession was working as hangmen, since the days of the East India Company, and continued with the same occupation after the independence.

Christian Community’s Support for the Creation of Pakistan

Christians were the only religious minority, in the region, that unanimously stood side by side with the local Muslim communities at the time of independence from British. On June 23, 1947, the Punjab Assembly met to decide if the province should wholly go to India or it be truncated into two. The Reuter’s Indian Service on the Assembly proceedings of that day reported:

“The 91 members who voted in favor of joining the new Constituent Assembly consisted of 88 Muslims, two Indian Christians and one Anglo-Indian. Hindus, Sikhs and representatives of the Scheduled castes, numbering in all 77, voted for the present Constituent Assembly … For the first time in the history of the Punjab Legislative Assembly, the speaker, Dewan Bahadur S. P. Singha (Indian Christian) went to the lobby and recorded his vote for the new Constituent Assembly.”

Then in July 1947, Singha, on behalf of Christians, told the Radcliffe’s Boundary Awards that Christians wanted to join Pakistan because they were ‘Muslimised’, trusted Muslims more than Hindus and their dress, poor economic status and religious beliefs were closer to Muslims than Hindus who treated them as pariahs.

The Punjab Education Minister Sheikh Karamat Ali on January 5, 1948, said on the floor of the Punjab Assembly that “We cannot deprive minorities, especially Christians, from their due rights … The Christian minority will be given its due right in policy making in this cabinet.” Ali thanked the three parliamentarians – SP Singha, Fazal Elahi, and CE Gibbon – for voting in Pakistan’s favor. He said “We will hold Christians with respect for what they have done for us.”

Once Pakistan was created, Christians opened doors of their educational institutions to Muslims. Two hostels in the Forman Christian College were vacated for the injured migrants coming from India. This makeshift arrangement later became the most prestigious United Christian Hospital (UCH). The first open-heart surgery in Pakistan was performed by Dr Don Bomes here in 1965, and the first successful replacement of heart valves took place here in 1969.

In 1960, Pakistani government announced an annual grant of 32,000 rupees for the UCH nursing school. “We know you turn out the best nurses in the country,” a government health official told management. “So it would be foolish of us not to help you. And we can employ all the nurses you can provide.” Because of these services of the Christian community, Fazal Elahi was elected unopposed as the Deputy Speaker in the first Punjab Assembly of West Pakistan. Chaudhry Chandu Lal Sundar Das, a lawyer, was elected Deputy Speaker in the second Punjab Assembly (1951 to 1955). Cecil Edward Gibbon was elected as the deputy speaker of the second Constituent Assembly in 1955, while another Christian Joshua Fazl- ud-Din, the former General Secretary of the Lahore High Court Bar Association, was appointed as the deputy Law and Parliamentary Affairs in the West Pakistan Assembly (1956 to 1958).

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All India Christian Association

The All India Christian Association was established by Dewan Bahadur S.P. Singha in 1942. This association contributed immensely towards the effort and deliberation of the freedom movement of India from the British. On the 18th November 1942, at the annual convention of the All India Muslim League Punjab convened in Faisalabad (then Lyallpur) which was attended by Mr. Jinnah and Miss Fatima Jinnah, All India Christian Association presented a paper assuring its unconditional and full co-operation to Mr. Jinnah in connection with his efforts for the freedom of India and the creation of Pakistan.

Another historical meeting was held on 23rd June 1947, to decide the fate of united Punjab. The meeting was chaired by Dewan Bahadur S.P Singha, a renowned Christian who was also the first speaker of the West Punjab Legislative Assembly after 1947. The Christians had decided to vote for the inclusion of the whole Punjab in Pakistan in a pre-party meeting held on 21st of June at the residence of S.P. Singha. When the resolution was voted upon on the 23rd June 1947, all the Christian members voted for Pakistan.

Changing Demographics of Christians in the Region

At the time of creation of Pakistan, Christians were a mosaic of different classes and ethnicities, but now they are overwhelmingly Punjabi. There was a good number of Goans, Anglo- Indian and educated Christians that came from converted high-class Indians. These educated Christians were serving in Forman Christian College in Lahore, Murray College in Sialkot, Gordon College in Rawalpindi, Kinnaird College in Lahore and dozens of quality education providing institutions like Convent of Jesus and Mary and St. Anthony’s High School in Lahore and St. Patrick’s High School and St. Joseph Convent School in Karachi.

Goa, on the southwestern coast of India, became a Portuguese colony in the early sixteenth century and turned into a Catholic principality in the coming centuries. These Catholics moved to greener pastures, from Bombay, to as far as what is now Karachi and greatly impacted and enriched newly created Pakistan. Today, very little is known about Mr. Lobo, a Goan, who served Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah as his personal secretary. Manuel Misquita was elected as the Mayor of Karachi in 1946 and remained so after the creation of Pakistan.

It is believed that along with Ahmad G. Chagla, Tollentine Fonseca, the bandmaster in the Pakistan Navy, gave our national anthem the marching tone. Hockey players Milton Muhammad D’Mello and Jack Britto were Olympians. Francis X Lobo became the chairman of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society.

According to Brigadier (r) Samson Simon Sharaf, a political economist, “Frank D’Souza, a member of the Railway Board of India had set up Pakistan Western Railways on request of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.” Then J.J. D’Mello served as the chairman of Pakistan Railways board in 1970’s.

The other prominent Christian community was Anglo-Indians. Tariq Mahmud, a civil servant and an academic, in his article “Where have all the Anglos gone?” tells how French, British, Portuguese and Dutch married local women that gave birth to more “wheatish” skinned people who were neither European nor were they native Indians. EC Gibbon told the Radcliffe Awards in July 1947: “The Anglo-Indians are happy to be in Pakistan … their origin dates back nearly to 200 years … Many of us Anglo-Indians in the Punjab can even trace our descent from the Kings of Oudh … Such is the case with practically 99 percent of the Anglo-Indians of Punjab. They are the descendants of the Anglo-Muslim race.”

Several Anglo-Indian played an important role in early days of Pakistan. The famous Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan case was first presented before Sindh High Court Justice Sir George Constantine. Eric G. Hall rose to vice-admiral of Pakistan Air Force in 1970’s. These “light-complexion” Anglo-Indians, “encouraged and preferred in the Railways by design” were present in Lahore as late as 1970’s; Mahmud, the civil servant turned historian, tells us.

The third vibrant section of the Pakistani Christian community came from elite classes during the British rule. Supreme Court Chief Justice AR Cornelius was born in Uttar Pradesh to Professor Israel Jacob Cornelius who was the son of a Hindu convert, while his wife was the daughter of a Pathan convert. (Cornelius, famously, like Justice Constantine, gave a dissenting note in Tamizuddin case.)

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Similarly, SP Singha himself came from an upper Brahman caste as told by his niece Indu Mitha (nee Chatterjee), who got married with the legendary Major-General Aboobaker Osman Mitha, the founder of country’s elite commando force, Special Services Group (SSG). “Retiring Anglos made their way to the green pastures of the West; often moving to Canada, USA, England, Australia and New Zealand,” writes Mahmud. As Goans and Anglo-Pakistani and educated Christians slowly disappeared from the scene, Christianity in Pakistan now is overwhelming of Punjabi origin.

American missionaries started arriving in Punjab in the early 19th century, as early as 1818. The British took over Punjab in 1849 – after the defeat of the descendants of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. Missionaries like Rev. Dr. Charles William Forman, Rev. Robert Clark, Rev. John Newton, Rev. Dr. J. W. Youngson, Rev. Rowland Bateman, Rev. Dr. Samuel Martin and Rev. Andrew Gordon were among the early missionaries who worked in Punjab.

The arrival of Indigenized Christians on the Scene

Interestingly, the 1855 census shows that there were no native Christians, in Punjab. However, the 1868 census reports there were 2,675 native Indian Christians who were mainly living in urban areas and had come from various backgrounds. Then in 1873, a short, dark and lame, middle-aged man, only known by one name, Ditt, converted in the village of Shihabdike in Zafarwal, now in district Narowal. Ditt, who traded in hides, went back to his village preached his new religion to the people of his caste then known as “Chuhra”.

These new entrants in Christianity were extremely poor, illiterate, landless and mostly dependent on Sikh landlords for their subsistence. The Encyclopedia Britannica explains caste as “socially ranked occupational categories” and people of the so-called “untouchable” “Chuhra” was designated “defiling” occupations.

Renowned missionary couple, Fredrick and Margaret Stock, in their classical work “People Movements in the Punjab” notes that the “Chuhras” were “the largest depressed class in Punjab”. They performed those duties and jobs that “Hindus and Muslims consider to be most defiling”: Removing dead animals, skinning these animals, removing unattended dead bodies, executing criminals condemned by the state and “cleaning up and removing excreta from latrines and public comfort areas”.

Stocks also noted that these folks were destined to live outside the village and because of sheer poverty, were forced to eat dead animals and leftovers. Ditt’s conversion brought hundreds of thousands from this downtrodden tribe of untouchables into the folds of Christianity. By 1881, there were 3,912 ‘Native Christians’ in Punjab. In 1891, it increased to 19,750 and in 1901 it reached 38,513. By 1911, it jumped to 163,994; in 1921 it was recorded 318,701; in 1931 it was recorded 418,926 and in 1941 it was recorded as 511,299. Missionary records tell that this mass conversion suddenly stopped by 1930’s.

It is in this historical backdrop that Tara Masih, who hanged the late Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977. Earlier his late father Paharhi had hanged the independence movement hero, Bhagat Singh in 1931. And, now his children recently hit headlines for hanging hundreds of terrorists. Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of sweepers in all major metropolitans are Christians and a large number of Christians in Pakistan are landless and illiterate.

Baba Sadiq is probably the last man alive who converted in this mass movement. He is now 106 years old and lives in Christian Colony, Shahdara, Lahore. Sadiq was born and raised in Najar Labana village in Sheikhupura where Christians had about 40 houses. All of them were landless laborers, called “Atharhi” or “seipi”. These people worshipped “Bala Shah”, an Islamized version of Balmik, a man-size earthen pillar with a niche to light a lamp in it. Before conversion to Christianity, marriages of these Bala Shah worshippers were solemnized by a low caste Muslim cleric, which is why SP Singha could rightly call them “Muslimized”.

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Economics of Christians: Displaced from their Lands

When Sikhs left for India after partition in 1947, the evacuated land was given to Muslim migrants who had come from India and these Christians were thrown out from their villages. On January 20, 1948, Singha on the floor of the Punjab Assembly stated that 200,000 out of 434,000 total Christian population in the country, had become homeless in villages. The ministers had then approved three to four acres of land for each internally displaced Christian family, but the file containing these state documents mysteriously disappeared from the secretariat.

Then on 15 August 1951, Punjab Resettlement and Colonies Department Deputy Secretary Chaudhry Nabi Ahmed allotted five chaks (villages) through a notification in South Punjab for Christians and scheduled caste “athris and sepis”. But this generosity was too small for the two-thirds of the entire Pakistani Christian population.

CE Gibbon on the floor of the assembly said in April 1952: “the grave situation arising out of the policy of the government in respect of the wholesale eviction of Christians” landless peasants in the villages had rendered “nearly 300,000 Christians homeless and on the verge of starvation, the consequences of which are too horrible to imagine.” These landless Christians were pushed to cities where they were expected to provide cheap labor as sweepers. Christians created homes for themselves on the edge of cities, in abandoned areas, where they faced no pressure from the government.

Be it France Colony in Islamabad, Isa Nagri in Karachi, Tail Godam in Peshawar or Joseph Colony (that was burned in March 2013) in Lahore, all owe to their inception to this mass displacement of Christians from village to cities. The Catholic Church set up several housing schemes for these displaced Christians and Youhanabad is one such example, this has been the target of terrorists since 2015.

Despite church’s efforts, there are hundreds of irregular settlements of Christians across the country. In several instances, the pretext of blasphemy has been used to vacate them. So far the government hasn’t made any effort to ensure safety against this menace. Yesterday, it was John Permal who was the fastest Pakistani man (from 1964 to 1974). Today, a Punjabi Christian woman, Saira Fazal, remained the fastest Pakistani women in 2003. If yesterday we had Wallis Mathias, Duncan Sharpe and Antao D’Souza playing international cricket then today we have Sohail Fazal and Yousuf Youhana (now Muhammad Yousuf).

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Today it is Twinkle Sohail who in 2015, became the first Pakistani woman to represent her country in powerlifting and took a gold medal in the 57-kilogram junior event at the Asian Bench Press Championship in her first attempt. This change in the face and composition of Christianity is obvious but there have been cerebral giants like Dr. Denis Isaac who wrote several head-turning dramas for Pakistan Television – in the heydays of PTV and Samuel Martin Burke, the architect of Pakistan’s foreign policy in early days, a historian, and a judge. There are countless others who have added to the mosaic and left their marks on Pakistan’s history.

Today, more than ever, there is a need to treat the Pakistani Christians within this complex historical perspective and give them their due respect and share in the nation’s policymaking.

Asif Aqeel is a prominent journalist, researcher and writer, and a vocal member of Pakistan’s Christian community. His area of work is “Marginality & Exclusion” with focus on religious minorities. Apart from Christians, his research includes “Brahmanic Caste System” and its hallenges to Pakistan’s poor Hindu minorities. Asif holds degrees in MSc Sociology and MPhil in Public Policy and Governance and his MPhil thesis was “Post-Partition Rural to Urban Mass Migration and Subsequent Illegal Settlements of Punjabi Christians and their Adoption of the Sweeping Occupation in Pakistan.” Asif has worked with the Daily Times and Express24/7 and several non-government organizations.


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