A Pakistani Catholic priest has built a community for the poor in the Faisalabad region, where he welcomes both Christians and Muslims.
In his farming village on the outskirts of Faisalabad, Fr. Emmanuel Parvez accommodates 200 families, mostly poor Christian farmers, who were previously reduced to the status of slave laborers. His community also welcomes some Muslim families. In this country with a large Muslim majority, where Christians are despised and even persecuted, this diversity is a sign of hope.
Aleteia: Christians are second-class citizens in Pakistan. How do you explain that in your community, Christians and Muslims live side by side?
Father Parvez: I am a teacher and in my school, half the students are Muslim, the other half are Christian. We also employ Muslim teachers, and this reassures parents: they see that we do not seek to indoctrinate their children. Our school is valued because the academics are good and there is discipline. This is where relationships between Christians and Muslims are forged, and this helps us a lot to live in peace with our neighbors.
This peace is not self-evident in Pakistan. What are the problems facing Christians?
We Christians are despised. Muslims do not want Christians to have good jobs, but only those they find degrading. We are constrained to discretion, there is no way we can ring bells in our churches or drink alcohol in public. For a while, I used loudspeakers to broadcast my sermons. I knew that Muslim neighbors were listening and I chose my words carefully, hoping that this would contribute to mutual understanding. Many Muslims heard and appreciated my sermons. But others came, and they told me that if I made one mistake, they would “put an end to all of us.” I turned off the speakers, because the smallest comment can be twisted into what they call blasphemy.
We know the problem of the anti-blasphemy law, in particular because of the case ofAsia Bibi, but does the law effect the daily lives of all Pakistanis?
Yes, because it can be used at any time. There are good lawyers in Pakistan, but they are no help when they have to defend a client accused of blasphemy. A Christian professor in a Muslim school was about to become the director, but his colleagues refused the promotion. They just had to accuse him of blaspheming the Koran and their problem was solved. In Faisalabad, a judge had the courage to defend two brothers accused of blasphemy, but an angry crowd lynched him along with the two suspects. As soon as the words “blaspheming the Koran” are pronounced there is no more logic, no more reasoning, they become madmen.
What role does the Pakistani state play in these outbreaks of violence?
The Pakistani state lets entire areas of its authority slip through its grasp. To give you a simple example, it was our parish that had to take the initiative to renovate the sewage disposal system in our neighborhood. We asked all the people to contribute according to their means, and it went well, but it shows that the state is not doing its job. To curb violence, it takes measures such as assigning imams to their homes during certain major Muslim festivals, but it cannot dismiss them. The authorities know that many of them take advantage of these moments when passions flare to launch virulent preaching … which often leads to action!
Why is there such violence in your country?
There is a lot of anger among Muslims. They feel humiliated by their situation in the world. They often say that there are 52 Muslim countries in the world, but that they represent nothing, carry no weight. They cannot stand the existence of the State of Israel, and they see the recent history of Muslim countries as a series of defeats. Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and even Bin Laden were heroes in their eyes. “They were all killed by the Americans,” they say. This anger engenders violence. In addition, a decade ago, the imams began to say that to commit suicide to kill unbelievers was “halal” (“permitted”) and this new form of attack has been wreaking havoc throughout Pakistan. The first victims, moreover, are not Christians but Muslims themselves who fight between various denominations … I heard of a Sunni religious procession that ended at a Shiite mosque, it was a terrible massacre!
It is hard to imagine that, at the same time, you can live in peace. How do you do it?
We share the lives of our Muslim neighbors, and they see that we are doing nothing wrong. We also share many points of faith. Muslims are very fond of our Christian holidays, especially Christmas. When we do our “living” Nativity scenes, there are little Christians and little Muslims who play Joseph, Mary and even the sheep … They also greatly appreciate our devotion to Mary. At the last feast, dedicated to Mary, Mother of Jesus, a Muslim schoolgirl placed the crown of flowers on the head of the statue of Mary. She was not tall enough, so a priest had to lift her. It was a moment that should have been photographed: a priest, carrying a little Muslim girl to Mary!
Do Muslims have a special devotion to Mary?
She is the only woman of importance in the Koran. They especially like the annual pilgrimage of Christians in Pakistan to Mariam Abad. Each year it brings together 300 to 400 thousand pilgrims. There are people who converge from everywhere, by bus, by bike, on foot. It’s an indescribable bustle! This pilgrimage is reputed to ensure fertility to childless couples. I know a Muslim couple who was in this case, and who has since had three children! Since then they have helped pilgrims, preparing meals and beds for those who come from afar.
Are there conversions to Christianity?
We do nothing that could appear like proselytizing. I never propose Baptism to a Muslim. But there are some who come to me. A Muslim teenager asked me to be baptized. But I lost sight of him for a year before finding him quite by chance. He told me that he could no longer be baptized, that his mother would poison him if he mentioned becoming a Christian again. Another man came to me, hungry and dressed like a beggar. He was an army officer, a man who had a good job, a wife and children, but he lost everything because his family discovered that he had become a Christian. I insist that we never ask a Muslim to leave his faith, but some do come to us.
Translated from Aleteia’s French edition