May 2020 Print

Christianity in Pakistan

By Kennedy Hall

If you were to do a quick internet search of Christianity in Pakistan, without a doubt you would find the topic of persecution as the dominant theme. In fact, if it were not for the general Wikipedia article, the entirety of the first Google page would list links related to persecution. The current persecution of Pakistani Christians is of course a very grave matter, one that requires the utmost of attention. However, the presence of Christ in Pakistan goes back far in history, well before the current age of persecution, to the earliest ages of the Church.

Rethinking Pakistan

When we think of Pakistan, unless we are historians, it is probable that we are thinking of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which is the official nation state that gained independence from the UK as a Dominion in 1947. Like many middle and far eastern nations with British patrimony, Pakistan was carved out by cartographers, statesmen, and activists in the post-WW II era. In reality, Pakistan is a complex nation with significant cultural and ethnic links to the populations of the surrounding nations of Afghanistan and India. Pakistani history is mixed up in the history of empires and kingdoms that battled for the region over centuries, such as the Pala Empire, which was actually Buddhist. There is not a singular religious history to point to in the pre-Islam era of Pakistan, but since the arrival of Islamic Conquest in the early 8th century, Islam has been the dominant religion. As you can imagine, this region’s history has not been entirely kind to non-Muslims, something all too common in Muslim majority regions.

Unkind as history has been to Christians in this region, we can link the origin of the One True Faith in this part of the world to the Apostle Thomas. It is commonly understood that Saint Thomas traveled to India, and died there. Of course, many modern historians, including some Catholics unfortunately, doubt the historicity of Saint Thomas’ presence in the Indian subcontinent, but tradition says otherwise. There is an apocryphal work known as the Acts of Thomas that speaks of the Saint’s adventures in a region ruled by a man named King Gondophares. This apocryphal work should not be consulted for religious reasons, as it is most certainly Gnostic, however, like the Protoevangelium of James (another apocryphal and at times problematic work) it does contain historical information. Archeological discoveries confirm the historicity of things mentioned in the account, and the writings of great Saints like Jerome and John Chrysosthom speak of Saint Thomas’ journey during the same time period.

Pakistan’s Christian Roots

Due to these historical truths, we can safely say that the roots of Pakistani Christianity are planted in the earliest days of what is commonly considered Indian Christianity. To be sure, there are no official churches in Pakistan like that of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in India, but the historical precedent is ancient nonetheless. Whatever the level of devotion to Christ throughout the intermediary centuries from the Early Church to the present day, the Faith is a part of Pakistani history.

With the advent of Islam throughout the region in the 8th century, any manifest form of Christianity was scant. In fact, it is hard to find any evidence of the Catholic faith practiced between the advent of Muhammadanism and the coming of European influence centuries later. This does not mean that there were no Christians, as Muslim societies tend to “squash the opposition,” by removing inconvenient truths from their histories.

Most travel ventures undertaken by Europeans to India were by sea. Sea travel helped voyagers to avoid the hostile conditions for Christians throughout the Muslim majority world, and it was also an effective means of travel. However, there was some land travel by individuals and small groups of Christians through the Pakistani-Indian region. The Italian explorer Marco Polo seems to have traveled through the northwestern mountain ranges connecting Pakistan and Afghanistan, although he was hardly a Christian missionary. Interestingly, there is a sheep famous amongst hunters called the Marco Polo sheep, common in the Pakistani mountain areas.

With the expansion of European colonial efforts in the region, a stronger presence of Christianity took hold in the region. As previously noted, Pakistan was officially part of the British Indian territory before 1947, thus missionary efforts into what is geographically Pakistan were still considered missionary efforts into India. The British of course brought their Anglican Church along with other denominations, which today are more properly understood as the Church of Pakistan. The Church of Pakistan is a unique blend of Protestant groups, comprising Lutherans, Anglicans, and others into one community.

The Jesuits Arrive

Beginning in the late 16th century, Jesuit missionaries from the Portuguese-settled Goa region of India began to establish a Catholic presence in Lahore. For a few years the Catholics operated with explicit permission from the Emperor, however, the Jesuits eventually experienced great difficulties. The region was still very Muslim, and converts from the local population were small in number. If the current situation for Catholics in Islamic Republics is any indication of the hostility faced in Pakistan at the time, it is understandable that locals would greatly fear the repercussions of conversion from Islam to Catholicism. In many Muslim areas, conversion to Catholicism is considered the capital offense of apostasy, often punishable by death.

The United Kingdom gained a foothold in India and Pakistan in the late 18th and early 19th century. They built cities and set up permanent settlements, such as the modern version of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Although the British were officially Protestant, they also had under their purview certain Catholic populations, like the Irish and the inhabitants of British North America, i.e., Canada. This meant that British Colonies had to provide the requisite religious opportunities for subjects of the Crown, cementing Catholicism as an integral part of the international settlements. As a result, this was a period of relative expansion for Pakistani Catholics. In fact, Karachi is home to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, beautiful Gothic revival style church, which was opened in 1881. Internationally Saint Patrick’s is known for its exquisite stained-glass representations of important events in salvation and Church history.

Eventually, the situation for Pakistani Catholics began to deteriorate with the advent of independence. The protections afforded to Catholics in a British-inspired governmental system were now a thing of the past. As flawed as the Colonial system may have been in some ways, it was generally speaking more “tolerant” than the current realities in Pakistan. It should be noted that under British rule, both Christians and Muslims lived in relative peace, something that seems impossible in a so-called “democratic” age.

In the new Pakistani nation, some prominent Catholics even campaigned for devout Muslim politicians who promised religious tolerance, but this dream was short-lived. Whatever good the initial politicians may have brought for Christians, the country has become more and more radically Islamic ever since. Christianity has remained technically legal, however in reality it is greatly suppressed by anti-blasphemy laws and violent outbursts by citizens.

Karachi, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral

Karachi, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral

The Church in Pakistan Today

Today, the Catholic Church in Pakistan operates under a typical diocesan system. There are over one million Catholics in the country, which represent less than 1% of the total Pakistani population. In Pakistan there are two archdioceses, four dioceses and one Apostolic Vicariate which fulfills the missionary efforts of areas without an established Catholic presence. The Catholic Church in Pakistan facilitates hundreds of schools and various other education and catechetical centers. In 1973, Archbishop of Karachi, Joseph Cordeiro, was named the first Pakistani cardinal by Pope Paul VI. The current Archbishop of Karachi, Joseph Coutts, was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2018.

Despite the seemingly regularized situation for Catholics in Pakistan, it is one of the most dangerous places on earth for Catholics. The organization Open Doors, a nonprofit that monitors Christian persecution worldwide, has recently listed Pakistan as the fifth most hostile country on earth for Christians. The majority of the animus comes by way of Islamic oppression. For example, Open Doors estimates that 700 girls and women are abducted each year, they are raped and then forcefully married to Muslim men in the community, usually resulting in forced conversions. Young students are routinely beaten by their classmates, even with the knowledge of their teachers, who remain undisciplined by the authorities who often show no sympathy to the Christian students.

Pakistan is technically a republic that espouses some form of religious tolerance, therefore Christian persecution is not an explicit or official policy. However, due to the Islamic nature of the country, various blasphemy laws are on the books that restrict any speech or expression that is seen as anti-Muslim. One can imagine the problem this poses for Christians as basic Christian doctrine would require a Catholic to reject Muhammad and the teachings of the Koran. Professing the Catholic faith publicly can be very dangerous indeed.

Shahbaz Bhatti was a Pakistani politician and member of the National Assembly, who was named the first Federal Minister for Minority Affairs. He was open about his faith and defended Catholics publicly, and as a result was assassinated on March 2, 2011. He was the only Catholic official in the cabinet and the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for his murder, labeling him a “blasphemer of Muhammad.” In March 2016, five years after the death of Shahbaz Bhatti, his cause for beatification was formally opened by the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, making him a Servant of God.

Perhaps the most famous case of Catholic persecution in Pakistan of recent years is the case of Aasiya Noreen, commonly known as Asia Bibi. Asia was involved in a feud with a coworker in 2009 over drinking water. She was the only Catholic on site and was forbidden from touching the same drinking utensils as her colleagues due to her being considered “unclean.” It is reported that she and a certain coworker had an argument and exchanged unpleasantries. Apparently Asia offended Muslim sensibilities by criticizing Muhammad. Whatever the nature of the verbal exchange, Asia was charged as a blasphemer and in November 2010 was sentenced to death by hanging. The decision was upheld at a higher court, and the case gained international attention. Shahbaz Bhatti defended her in the political realm, criticized the blasphemy laws; actions which led to his aforementioned assassination. Her family members received untold amounts of death threats, and many members went into hiding for fear of violence. Through a series of petitions and appeals from notable people, including Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, Asia was eventually acquitted and placed in protective custody. In May of 2019 she was finally relocated to Canada, where she now lives amongst emigrated family members and fellow Pakistani Catholics.

The situation for Pakistani Catholics and other Pakistani Christian groups should remind us of the reality of martyrdom even in the modern day. Archbishop Lefebvre knew all too well the dangers Christians faced in Muslim majority nations from his time in Africa, and Pakistan is just another example. We must listen to the wisdom of the good Archbishop and pray fervently for the Reign of Christ the King in a world where they have uncrowned Him. We should also show true Catholic solidarity with persecuted Pakistani Catholics through our prayers and mission efforts. The modern secular state provides many difficulties for Catholics in the industrialized world, however, we can unite our sufferings to the great hardships that Pakistani Catholics face constantly. Let us pray that one day Pakistan will be fertile soil for mass conversion and remember that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.