Providing flood relief and seeking interreligious dialogue, Catholics in Pakistan respond in faith
Torrential rains came down upon Pakistan in late July, setting in motion the most devastating floods in the country's history. And despite the dangerous conditions and obstacles created by the disaster, the Catholic Church has been on the front lines of the relief efforts ever since.
Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan, Pakistan, gives a box of relief goods to a Pakistani boy.
Beginning in the north, the flood waters slowly made their way through all four of the country's provinces, affecting more than 20 million people, according to the United Nations humanitarian office. The flooding destroyed homes, submerged farmlands and created mass shortages of food and clean water. Roadways and bridges were also destroyed, hampering relief efforts, and Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority reports that the estimated number of deaths has climbed to nearly 2,000.
Catholic aid organizations responded quickly to the widespread humanitarian crisis, with Caritas Pakistan joining efforts with another Catholic aid organization to bring food, emergency supplies and medical care to those afflicted by the flooding. Millions who lost their homes were placed in tents and transitional shelters, but after more than three months, many are still waiting for help.
"There are still places that have not been reached, where the people have not been assisted at all, and they are only reachable by boat," said a representative of a Catholic aid organization in Pakistan. "Water is receding every day, but there are still some areas that are under water, and we are trying to reach these people."
Amid the crisis, Bishop Andrew Francis of the Diocese of Multan emerged as a leader in the Catholic response. From the start of the monsoon in July, Bishop Francis and a team from his diocese, which covers the southern Punjab province in central Pakistan, began working to help those affected. The bishop waded through miles of flooded streets to bring many people to safety, praying the rosary aloud and carrying women and children to dry land.
"We wanted to fulfill the Gospel of Jesus Christ — that when I was hungry and naked and thirsty and homeless, you cared for me," Bishop Francis said. "So we went out of our way and reached these people through boat and through every possible means."
Since the initial flooding, the bishop has continued his hands-on approach in bringing supplies such as food, clean water, warm clothing, blankets and medicine to thousands in need. But as supplies ran short, a donation from the Knights of Columbus helped continue the Diocese of Multan's relief work.
The $25,000 donation was, according to Bishop Francis, "a real miracle to continue working miracles for the flood-affected areas." The Knights' contribution enabled the Diocese of Multan to purchase food kits containing wheat flour, sugar, cooking oil and tea; household items such as cookware and utensils; personal hygiene kits; and emergency shelter tents for families throughout the diocese's seven districts. Additional funds have been collected through Knights of Columbus Charities.
Bishop Francis, who serves as chairman of the National Commission for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism in Pakistan, said that the disaster was also an opportunity to promote a greater understanding of Christianity in the region. The Multan Diocese covers an area of 13 million people, of whom only 200,000 are Christian. The religious divide in Multan mirrors Pakistan as a whole; more than 95 percent of the country's 180 million residents are Muslim, and less than one percent are Catholic.
The Church's relief efforts, therefore, have primarily assisted non-Christians. But as Bishop Francis and his team came upon people in need, he said that many flood victims asked him to pray or to offer them a blessing, even though they did not share the same faith.
"For me it was a great opportunity," Bishop Francis said. "It has brought a lot of good will and broken many walls of prejudice and misunderstanding between Islam and Christianity."
As a native of Pakistan raised in a very faithful Catholic family, Bishop Francis has lived the experience of the Christian minority his entire life. Since being ordained to the priesthood in 1972, he has devoted himself to teaching the faith, to missionary work and to pastoral care without prejudice. But Bishop Francis also knows from personal experience that proclaiming the Gospel in a Muslim nation does not come without its share of danger.
While serving as a priest in the city of Lahore in 1996, he established a powerful prayer ministry that began drawing the interest of Muslims. One day, two men came to his office pretending to be gravely ill and asked him to pray for them, but they soon revealed their true intentions.
"As I put my stole on and closed my eyes, one of them came on my side and from very close range shot me in my right temple," he recalled. Thankfully, the bullet grazed him and hit the wall. A second shot aimed at his forehead also missed. Father Francis took a gun in each hand, pointed them at his attackers and pleaded with them to leave. The men pushed him down and hit him with the handle of a gun, opening a nine-inch wound in his head. Then they fled the scene.
Father Francis recovered from the attack, and the experience did not stop him from proudly professing his faith in Jesus. In 2000, he was named bishop of Multan and has continued his ministry of bringing God's love to all in need, especially the sick, the imprisoned, the poor and those who have not heard the message of Christ.
"I have got a new life, and I want to live it fully for the sake of the Gospel," Bishop Francis said. "I am just an ordinary pastor, a priest and a missionary. I love to go to the unknown frontiers where there are no Christians and share the Gospel of Christ."
Christians and Muslims have tried to live side by side in Pakistan for decades, with attempts at dialogue dating back more than 25 years. Dominican Father James Channan, coordinator of the United Religions Initiative in Pakistan and a former member of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said that there have been great strides in promoting harmony between religions, yet many challenges persist.
"We have some people who are fanatics and fundamentalists. They are the minority, but they have created problems for Catholics by falsely accusing them of blasphemy and attacking our churches, our schools, our houses and our shops," Father Channan said.
Catholics and Muslims, though, found ways to work together on initiatives such as promoting literacy, fighting poverty and disaster relief. "But we still need to work much more," Father Channan said. "We need to work so that misunderstandings between us and Muslims could be lessened, and we could work more on the things that unite us rather than the things that divide us."
In spite of attempts to bridge those divides, the threat of violence against Christian minorities by terrorist groups remains a serious concern throughout the Middle East. In Iraq, the realities of anti-Christian sentiment became apparent in late October, when armed militants stormed the Syriac Catholic cathedral in Baghdad during Mass and held more than 100 Catholics hostage. The ensuing violence resulted in more than 50 deaths and many injuries, causing Catholic leaders to call for greater efforts to promote religious harmony in the region.
The attack came just days after the conclusion of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, during which Catholic bishops gathered at the Vatican to discuss the importance of interfaith dialogue and the need for Catholics and their Muslim neighbors to work together for the common good. Although Bishop Francis was unable to attend the synod due to his involvement in the ongoing flood relief, he noted that there are efforts in Pakistan to promote dialogue at every level, from government leaders to scholars and university communities to average citizens. Currently, there is an initiative to create conversations among young people of different faiths in Pakistan and the neighboring countries of Afghanistan and India.
Meanwhile, the Catholic minority in Multan has continued to maintain a strong, vibrant faith. Yet, there are still obstacles, such as Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law that has been used against non-Muslims, but the faithful remain undeterred in their devotion to Christ.
"People are professing their faith boldly and proclaiming Jesus Christ with great courage and joy," Bishop Francis said. "Yes, we have many difficulties, but we are not afraid. We carry on sharing the name of Jesus."
SCOTT ALESSI writes from New Jersey.