ASIA/PAKISTAN - Christians in the land of the Taliban. With Francis of Assisi, men and women of peace in Beluchistan

Wednesday, 4 October 2023 evangelization   franciscan   dialogue   peace  

Vicariato Apostolico di Quetta

by Paolo Affatato

Quetta ( Fides News Agency) - The evangelical spirit of peace and meekness of St. Francis of Assisi lives on in Beluchistan, a borderland province of Pakistan with frontiers on Afghanistan and Iran. Beluchistan is located in the southwestern part of the country, and includes about 20 million inhabitants, tribal populations predominantly Beluchi (35 percent) and Pashtun (35 percent). It is a territory traversed by multiple open issues: despite being rich in natural resources such as oil, gas, copper and gold, it suffers from problems such as underdevelopment and poverty, while among the local population separatist groups stigmatize the work and mission of the central government, accused of not doing enough to integrate the population into the nation and ensure its development. Most of the province's population is Sunni Muslim. Against a backdrop of discontent and feelings of estrangement from the central state, especially in the tribal belt of the mountainous region bordering Afghanistan, the so-called "Pakistani Taliban," ethnic Pashtun groups that have coagulated into terrorist organizations such as "Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan" (TTP), have emerged. The latter formation, in recent times, has resumed carrying out terrorist attacks across the nation . According to a report published by the Islamabad-based "Independent Center for Security Research and Studies," militant attacks by the TTP have increased in the past year, killing more than 700 security forces and civilians in 2023, many of them in Beluchistan and the other province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the northwest of the country. The report notes that the number of victims of terrorist attacks this year increased by 19 percent compared to 2022, and Pakistan's two provinces bordering Afghanistan suffered 92 percent of all casualties.
The provincial government's response has been harsh: In a recent report titled "Belochistan's Struggle for Hope," the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed deep concern about the growing public frustration in Belochistan over enforced disappearances, economic exclusion, restrictions on press freedom, poor governance, and militarization of the territory, which creates a climate of fear among the civilian population.
In a territory dense with such challenges, the typical charism of St. Francis of Assisi, made up essentially of a benevolent gaze toward the other, under the banner of 'fraternitas' toward every man and every creature, comes to life among Catholic faithful of the Apostolic Vicariate of Quetta, the capital of Beluchistan. It is a small reality of Church dispersed in a mountainous and inhospitable territory, made up of men and women who, by virtue of baptism, make dialogue and service to their neighbor their mission, in a witness characterized by humility and compassion. The life of this small community is recounted and declined by a Franciscan, Capuchin friar and Bishop Khalid Rehmat OFM Cap, who since 2021 has led a community of cica 34,000 Catholics divided into 9 parishes, 7 of which are in Quetta, and only two erected in remote and mountainous areas of the vast provincial territory.
In this sensitive context, Bishop Rehmat explains in simple and lucid words what it means "to be a Christian in the land of the Taliban": "To be small, weak, poor. For many of our communities, life is very difficult economically and geographically: the roads to the villages are impassable, there is no access to education or health services. But we live peacefully, humbly, unpretentiously, trusting in God's Providence every day. We know that being here is a gift from God," he notes. An important faith reference is "the experience of Francis of Assisi, a man I followed in my vocation as a Franciscan priest. From him we learn to be open to our neighbor, to profess Jesus Christ who is charity, love toward all," he remarks. The bishop is part of the "patrol" of Capuchin friars present in Pakistan thanks to a mission started in Punjab from 1886, which has contributed greatly to the growth of the Pakistani Church, founding villages, building churches, schools, hospitals, social centers, and which today is the flourishing religious province "Custody Mariam Siddeeqa," based in Lahore, Punjab.
The territory of Beluchistan is inhabited by tribal peoples, "with clan-bound culture and mentality; Pashtuns have a strong, authoritarian character. They are generally landowners, they are all Muslims, and Islam is significant culturally and socially in our context. We are a small flock in this territory and we are recognized as presons of peace. Beluchi and Pashtuns know Christians good and peaceful people. We are a community that lives, in simplicity, the joy of being here."
If the life of the parishes proceeds with the celebration of the Sacraments and catechesis, in the concern to cultivate communion among the baptized, in the Apostolic Vicariate of Quetta the mission of Christians is expressed mainly through the service of education in 7 schools (six of them in Quetta) run by religious congregations of men (such as the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Salesians ) and women (including the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery, and others): "We can be witnesses of God's love. Our schools are attended by many Beluchi and Pashtun children. Families send them to us knowing that they are safe in our institutions, that they are treated well, valued, welcomed and cared for, growing up with good human values for all, receiving a quality education," the Vicar Apostolic explains.
The meeting in the context of the school allows the gradual establishment of a knowledge and dialogue with people of other religions, especially of the Islamic faith, "which is always building fraternity," notes Msgr. Rehmat, who recounts a significant episode: "After the recent incident with violence on Christians in Jaranwala, Faisalabad (see Fides 18/8/2023), we received solidarity from Muslim believers and leaders. With them, we continue to build bridges of friendship," he repeats, recalling the example of Francis of Assisi who already in 1219, at the time of the Fifth Crusade, wanted to visit Sultan Malik Al-kamil "rejecting all logic of overpowering, choosing the path of encounter and coming as a man of peace," the Capuchin recalls.
The theme of peace, he remarked, remains crucial to living the faith experience in Beluchistan: "Being far from any logic of hatred or violence; being always, in all circumstances, even in suffering, men and women of peace is the hallmark of being a Christian in this land. It is one of our most fruitful fields of witness and action. Every day we pray saying, Lord, make us instruments of your peace."
The vicar concluded, "In Quetta we can say that living in communion and peace means not only living in the absence of conflict, but living each day in the hope and joy that come from Christ Jesus. Jesus is the peace. God gives peace and we bring it to our neighbor. Thus we are recognized because we are disciples, resurrected with Christ Jesus, witnesses of his love."
( Fides News Agency 4/10/2023)