ASIA/PAKISTAN - Christmas for Christians freed from "slave labor" in Punjab

Friday, 22 December 2023 work   slavery   christmas   freedom  

Faisalabad (Agenzia Fides) - It is a Christmas full of praise and thanksgiving to God experienced by Catholic families who, in Pakistani Punjab, were freed from the condition of slavery to which they were forced, working in brick kilns. The perverse mechanism that leads these families, often destitute and uneducated Christians, to be reduced to slavery is that they contract a debt with a rich landowner, the owner of the brick factory. To repay the debt, an entire family, from the elderly to children, is employed in clay mining and brick making for what can last a lifetime. Pope Francis called it "slave labor". Father Emmanuel Parvez, parish priest in Pansara, in the territory of the diocese of Faisalabad, in the plain of Pakistani Punjab, thanks to the contribution of a few donors, redeems these people, settles the debt and gives them their freedom. "These families, often Christian, are forced to produce more than 1,500 bricks per day to repay the loans from the kiln owners. However, they are not informed of the amount of their debt, the duration of their work or the interest charged on their loans. We are trying to free them from this modern slavery", he emphasizes. "When we manage to free them, these faithful are filled with gratitude to God and the Church. They participate fervently in the liturgical assembly. The women come to church every day and recite the rosary. During Advent, in the community of Pansara, we organized special prayers and days of penance with the sacrament of reconciliation. More than two thousand faithful came to benefit from this gift", explains the priest.
During the Christmas preparation period, Father Parvez began visiting the 38 villages scattered around his parish, where there are small Christian communities of five or six families, in predominantly Muslim villages. "We celebrate the Eucharist in the house of one of these families. It is a very intense moment of intimacy with God and fraternity. For them, it is a great Christmas gift, it is the presence of 'Emmanuel, the God-with-us,' he observes. The preparatory prayer novena for Christmas at the Saint Paul Apostle parish, in Pansara is a well-attended daily event. Every day, he reports, we pray, we reflect on a theme and we put it into practice: when the theme is assistance to the sick, the faithful visit the sick in the parish; during the day dedicated to proximity to the poor, aid is collected for the poor of the parish, without distinction of ethnicity or religion. A day is dedicated to brotherhood and fun activities are encouraged between young Muslims, Hindus and Christians for peace. On the day when the theme is "family agape", families share a dinner in the parish. "When we talk about light - he says - on the roof of each house, the faithful place a light or a star; on the day dedicated to disability, we gather and bring gifts and sweets to children with disabilities". "On the last day - concludes the parish priest - we recreate the Nativity, with the shepherds, the angels, the characters of Mary and Joseph with real sheep, the donkey and the oxen, and celebrate the Eucharist, just as Saint Francis did in Greccio. In the Eucharist, the Lord comes every day and gives himself to us in his humility. It is a moment deeply felt by the entire community. The families who have regained their freedom, to whom we also try to give something and a land to cultivate for their subsistence, are among the most devoted. These people, the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most deprived and without any education, deeply appreciate and understand the experience of God as liberator, as companion of life, as the One who never abandons us".
Although forced labor was banned in Pakistan and abolished in 1992, the practice continues and has even increased in recent years due to the worsening economic crisis. Pakistan has around 20,000 brick kilns. The Global Slavery Index (GSI), compiled by an Australian-based NGO, estimates that around 3 million people in Pakistan are caught in debt slavery. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 22/12/2023)