ASIA/PAKISTAN - The Christian faith is alive in the desert of Baluchistan: Agenzia Fides interviews the Apostolic Prefect of Quetta

Vatican City (Agenzia Fides) – Baluchistan is a harsh, rugged territory, mainly set on a high plain, with varying altitudes of 100-1200 meters in height, among the mountains of Toba Kakar, on the Afghan border, and the Suliman mountain range, along the Indus River. To the south, along the border zones, lies one of the world’s harshest deserts, the Makran, where nomads live, dedicating their lives to their flocks of sheep. In the civil province of Baluchistan, is found the most recently established ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Pakistan, the Apostolic Prefecture of Quetta. The Prefecture, erected on November 9, 2001 in an area that encompasses nearly 7 million inhabitants, finds its roots among the first ecclesiastical territories erected during the reign of the British Empire in 1697, when the “Vicariate of the Great Mogul” was established, which included the lands of Sindh and Baluchistan. In 1832, the Vicariate went on to form a part of the Archdiocese of Bombay and then, 1878, it passed to the mission of Afghanistan, which had been entrusted to the Mill Hill missionaries. Fr. John Bernard Temme, Mill Hill missionary, was the first missionary killed in Quetta, that in the years to follow would be visited by Jesuits (who left in 1935) and then Franciscans (until 1982). In 1982, the pastoral care of the local community was entrusted to the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate (OMI), later reinforced by Salesians. In 2001, the official institution of the Apostolic Prefecture of Quetta was established (taking territory form the dioceses of Karachi and Hyderabad) and the Apostolic Prefect was appointed: Sri Lankan missionary Fr. Victor Gnanapragasam, OMI.
Today, the Prefecture is subdivided into six parishes and nearly 30,000 Catholics. Fr. Victor, who was at the Vatican for the Ad limina Apostolorum visit of the Pakistani Bishops, told Fides that the Christian faith is alive, in spite of the difficulties of the area and the cultural and religious obstacles: “Our community is spread out on a vast area, for the most part desert, in which it is fairly difficult to go from one place to another and travel distances. The logistical difficulties are many. We try to visit the remote villages and sometimes it takes days and days of traveling to visit only 5 families. However, I think that slowly but surely the Catholic faithful, the majority of whom are poor farmers and cattlemen, are gaining confidence and the Catholic families are being strengthened in their faith, hope, and charity. With all the problems that they suffer, they could be tempted to lose hope or abandon the faith, but that is not what happens. This is encouraging for us in our pastoral efforts. Even though I am not able to frequently visit the various communities of the Prefecture, I know that they continue meeting on a regular basis to pray, celebrate, and hear the Word of God, in spite of the difficulties.”
“The pastoral life is easiest in Quetta, at the center of the Prefecture, where there are 5 congregations of religious sisters (a total of 20 sisters) and 10 priests, among which there are OMIs and Salesians. The missionary charism is alive and present and is bearing fruits.” The Prefecture also runs a school, attended by many Christian and non-Christian children and a home for urgent social service. It offers assistance to orphans, abandoned women, and poor families. There are 19 Catholic learning institutions and 14 social institutions (including hospitals, aid centers for marginalized persons, etc.).
The Salesians have a parish in Quetta with nearly 1200 Christian families, with a youth center used for catechetical activities, professional training, and youth activities.
Amidst the biggest challenges and obstacles for Baluchistan is that of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Christians are often considered “second-class citizens” and, as many local faithful say, they “become a target for Islamic radicalists.” In August 2007, armed radicalists led an attack on a church in the Apostolic Prefecture of Quetta, wounding some of the faithful. “But the flame of the Christian faith has been ablaze for centuries and continues illuminating our life,” Fr. Victor concluded. “In the humble daily work, in silence, in prayer, the Catholic families give the testimony of a Christian life.” (PA) (Agenzia Fides 17/6/2008)

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