‘I am sorry I could not speak to you then because we were just about to begin the funeral service for Irfan, an 11 year-old boy who was shot in the head. He passed away yesterday. ‘
That was the opening line of the e-mail from Fr Mario Rodriguez, National Director for the Pontifical Mission Societies in Pakistan. Several hours later, Fr Mario was able to give a few more details as we spoke over the phone.
‘Irfan was shot in the head a few days ago when the Taliban attacked the church in Tiasar Town near Karachi, where 300 of the 700 local Christian families are Catholic. He had massive brain injuries and was on life-support when I visited him in the hospital on Friday. He died on Monday and was buried today, Tuesday. His parents are devastated and his mother hasn’t eaten or drunk since the incident.’
This is the reality for innocent Catholic families in Pakistan now that the Taliban have taken over the Swat Valley and have imposed sharia law. Fr Mario explained. ‘The ruling government gave the Taliban permission to adopt sharia law in the area because the north of the country is a war zone. The two sides signed an agreement giving the Taliban control of the area if they would maintain peace. It was a desperate measure. The Taliban, however, only kept their word for ten days and then advanced beyond the agreed borders. In an effort to limit the Taliban’s incursion deeper into Pakistan, troops have today killed 70 insurgents. The Taliban now say that the Government has gone back on its word.’
Sadly, Irfan Masih was only one of the recent casualties as a result of Taliban activities. On 22 April several insurgents entered Karachi and began to spray insulting messages on the walls of the town. ‘They wrote “Long live Taliban!” and “Embrace Islam!” on many of the walls, but people stayed quiet until the Taliban attacked the church. When Christians reacted and tried to remove the slogans, they were told “We can do what we want. You are a minority!”’
After 2 hours, the insurgents then returned with over 40 armed soldiers and began firing on the Christians gathered there. ‘One boy died on the spot. A man was shot in the arm. Irfan was shot in the head and struggled to survive’, continued Fr Mario. The Taliban then proceeded to sack the houses of 15 Christian families in the area, later setting them on fire.
‘The Taliban deliberately came into the Christian area of the town’, declared Fr Mario. ‘Their aim is to force the Christians to leave the area or pay a tribute imposed by the sharia on non-Muslim minorities. Ten days later the police have still not registered a report. Some of the local people say that the police are involved as well, because they were present and did nothing to stop the culprits.’
Recent news reports in this country have indicated that there are many Pakistanis who are reacting against the Taliban, having seen the video on YouTube, showing them flogging a teenage girl, and another in which a couple are accused of adultery and killed with multiple shots.
‘Most people are against the Taliban. They do not want them to take control, but what can they do? The Taliban have such a low opinion of women and of education for women. In the Swat Valley, they destroyed two schools that were run by the Presentation Sisters. They gave the Sisters 24 hours to leave their two schools and the girls’ hostel and then blew up the buildings. This is very sad; women are a vital resource for our society.’
‘The Taliban also makes life difficult for other people. They do not like technology and say that it is all evil and so they go around destroying radios, television sets, CD and DVD players. They close down cinemas and newspapers and ban dances and music. By destroying technology, the Taliban ruins a growing resource that impacts especially on its greatest users - the young'.
This is a sensitive issue for Fr Mario. ‘The only ones to defend us are the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), which is the largest political party of Karachi, representing immigrants who migrated from India to Pakistan in 1947. They currently also defend the rights of minority religions, of which Catholics form only 0.72% in a country where 97% of the population is Muslim. The Karachi Archdiocese has Pakistan’s highest percentage of Catholics, but that is still only 1.4% or 145,000 in a total population of 14,000,000.
Karachi itself has the record of being the first diocese in Pakistan to be run by the local clergy, and the then Archbishop Joseph Cordeiro (1918-1994), the first local priest to become the first bishop in Pakistan from among the local clergy. He was the first – and only – Pakistani Cardinal, appointed in 1973.
How is the Church handling the upsurge in anti-Christian violence? ‘We are running a training course for Catholic families who live in the tribal areas in the north. We are trying to help them to lead by example, so that people can see them living a peaceful, good Christian life. Yes, it takes courage and some of them know that they will be attacked and perhaps killed, but they say, “This is what our faith means to us. If we are killed, then so be it.” We have so many un-canonised martyrs in Pakistan.’
Catholics in England and Wales have a special relationship with the Church in Pakistan through the Association for the Propagation of the Faith (APF). In 2007, the APF worldwide gave £238,400, and in 2008, £169,200 as a result of the Red Box collections and World Mission Sunday. There is, however, one more, very urgent contribution that they can make. As Fr Mario finished speaking about the plight of Pakistani Catholics at the present time, he simply said, ‘Please ask them to pray for us. Pray! Pray! Pray!’
Source: Pontifical Mission Society