Blog di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA – Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa MISSIONARY ONGOING FORMATION – A missionary look on the life of the world and the church
It is an inferno nobody would want to live in. And yet, there are three thousand people inhabiting “Joseph Colony”, crammed into clay shacks that often have just one living space for a number of families. No water, no electricity, no sewerage system. A true and proper slum that sits in an industrial area and is surrounded by factories.
Lahore is the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province and is historically the most important city in the country. A cultural hotbed, cradle of the intelligentsia and economically and politically prosperous. As is the case with all supercities (today it is home to 11 million inhabitants), Lahore is not free from illegal settlements and shanty towns. But there is something about “Joseph Colony” that sets it apart from all other slums: it is inhabited exclusively by Christians. “They have been living in subhuman conditions, surrounded by absolute degradation, for 38 years, that is, when the colony was born,” says Philip John, the neighbourhood’s parish priest.
Another young priest, 28-year-old Asif Sardar, celebrates mass in the colony’s makeshift chapel for the hundred Catholic families that live there, every Sunday. There is also a Protestant space for worship and a rudimentary school run by an NGO. “These people are all poor. The women work as maids, men work as day labourers, cleaners, builders, porters and carriers. They are here because they have no other alternative. It is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Lahore,” says Asif.
Air and soil quality is poor what with all the fumes and effluent. Water reaches the slum only once a day thanks to a cistern. When the water arrives, the place livens up: women clean their homes, do the laundry and washing, while children wash themselves in the street, in the alleyways. “No one should have to live in such conditions,” Asif bitterly points out, dreaming of some kind of social housing project.
The “colonies” are single-religion ghettos that group together most of Pakistan’s Christians, 3% of the country’s 200-million-strong population. Belgian Capuchin missionaries had totally different plans for these spaces when they were created. These missionaries brought the Gospel to this part of the Indian subcontinent at the end of the 19th century. Back then, the first Christians needed to develop a sense of reciprocal solidarity and to reinforce their Christian identity in a Muslim environment, staying united. Added to this – over a century later – was the need for security and protection which Christian families in Pakistan felt. They preferred to have people of the same religion around them, especially families with adolescent females who were easy prey for Muslim men: kidnappings that lead to forced marriages and conversion are a widespread reality. Anyone who is not a member of the Ummah is subject to abuse. In today’s mentality, the belief, especially among the less educated, is that religious minorities are “inferior beings”. This comes from an ancient concept of cast which is linked to the fact that the Christian and Hindu communities that remained in Pakistan – after the partition of India in 1947 – belonged to lower social classes. This prejudice still exists today, with non Muslims seen as second rate citizens, partly because of modifications that have been made to the Constitution, institutionalising discrimination.
“Joseph Colony” was an easy target when, in March 2013, a crowd of Muslims set it alight, enacting a “mass punishment” of Christians. It was all triggered by a case of “blasphemy”, which, as Parvez Paul, a lay Catholic living in the colony says, “was a pretext, after an altercation broke out between two drunk young men”, Sawan Masih, a Christian and Shadid Imran, a Muslim. Imran went to a nearby mosque to report the alleged insult against Islam. After the encouragement given by the Muslim clergy, it was only a matter of time before an attack took place. Although it is true that the police had the colony evacuated in order to prevent a massacre but nothing was done to stop the area being looted and set on fire. To add insult to injury, in the space of a year, Sawan Masih was sentenced to death for offending the Prophet. Those responsible for the arson, meanwhile, are on the loose. The President of the Catholic Justice and Peace commission, Emmanuel Yousaf, points out that “politicians turned a deaf ear to appeals made by civil society. Very few were brave enough to protest against this parody of justice.” Poverty, discrimination, injustice are now fuelling a new phenomenon: an exodus. NGOs estimate that over the past year, 14,000 Pakistani Christians have sought asylum in countries across Eastern Asia and Southeast Asia.