Newspaper Articles

The Christian Cross: A Fading Symbol in Pakistan – by Zeresh John

A fading symbol
By Zeresh John
Monday, 04 Jan, 2010

The cross is the most widely recognised religious symbol of Christianity. Down the years, the emblem has faded from the public eye, rarely seen in the humdrum of everyday life in Pakistan. Born and raised a devout Protestant Christian and a part of the country’s largest religious minority, the increasing invisibility of the cross, despite its ascent about two decades ago, seems unsettling to me.

There was a time in Pakistan when it was common to see cross pendants around the necks of people on the streets. But now, that sight has been reduced to a rare glimpse in Karachi’s Bohri Bazaar, only when Christmas is around the corner. The decreasing visibility of the cross here underscores the challenges the Christian community is facing.

Indeed, in view of recent anti-Christian violence, there is an even smaller fraction of people who hang a cross on the rearview mirrors of their cars or display their religious identity on the entrance doors of their homes — a sight that was previously common. The cross seems to be fast disappearing from local jewelry shops too. When inquired about this change, Pakistani Christians voice concerns about their security and dubiously ponder their future. “Not many people come to buy them anymore. We have some samples, but they are rarely requested,” says the owner of a small jewelry shop in Saddar.

Churches once adorned with decorative lights on festive occasions are now accompanied by security guards and metal detectors. Christian processions through the streets of Karachi before sunrise on Easter and at midnight on Christmas have altogether stopped. Images of the cross are now only seen at few and far between photo exhibitions of churches or historical landmarks of the country in elite and well cloistered galleries.

Photographer Stephan Andrew admits to lesser opportunities now than before to photograph the cross in Pakistan. For his first solo exhibition two months ago, Andrew had just one photograph capturing the Christian presence in the country — an image of the monument in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“Christians are hesitant to display their religious identity now. It is believed that if you are a Christian, you are either associated with the Americans or are a foreigner,” Andrew adds.

Salman Chand, a Karachi-based banker who is a part of the youthful social scene, says he doesn’t wear a cross for different reasons: “I’m not too keen on putting my faith on display, only because I feel the cross is sacred and sometimes conflicts with my lifestyle. I don’t wear a cross only because I don’t want it to be disrespected or associated with things that my religion does not preach.”

Despite such reservations, young Christians do long for some acknowledgement of their faith in Pakistan’s public sphere. Andrew recounts a recent visit to Karachi’s Empress Market, where he came across some roadside shops selling cross pendants on black thread. “Perhaps it is more style than any sort of religious declaration, but seeing those crosses felt good. It just shows how some part of Pakistan is still very liberal and forthcoming,” he explains.

Indeed, many Pakistani Christians continue to value the symbolism of the cross. Guitarist, composer and music producer, Shallum Xavier, who wears a cross pendant around his neck in all his music videos, says that he does not wear it to represent his faith, but because of what it signifies: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. “I wear the cross because of my memories from my childhood. It is more of a personal thing. A big part of it is because of my love for Jesus Christ,” says the pop celebrity.

Meanwhile, Nabeel Dean, a senior sales and marketing manager in an insurance company, points out that it is not just the Christians who are scared of professing their identity in Pakistan. “People from other castes are generally keeping a low profile also. With sectarian violence on the rise and internal clashes between various political parties, caste and religion automatically become explosive subjects. You never know what will offend who,” he says.

Better days

In the years after Partition, Pakistani Christians used to have no qualms displaying their identity. The community’s confidence and self assurance was at its peak between the 1950s and 1970s, when Pakistani Christians were respected members of society. They were patriotic citizens and qualified professionals, contributing as educationists, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and even popular radio jockeys. Back then, Pakistani society encouraged a dynamic mix of cultures, nationalities and religions. This congenial respect for diversity gave birth to acceptance for all minorities.

Before Xavier and other contemporary Christian pop icons, including the legendary drummer Gumby, had to justify their regard for the cross, the sound of religious harmony was heard loud and clear across Pakistan. In the late 1970s, the Benjamin Sisters, a singing group comprising three sisters – Nerissa, Beena and Shabana – achieved immense popularity in both Pakistan and neighboring India in what began to be referred to as the Benjamin Sisters Phenomenon. In fact, the Benjamin Sisters symbolised what Jinnah’s Pakistan was supposed to be, singing patriotic national songs such as ‘Is parcham kay saye tale hum ek hai.’

The mass migration

However, General Ziaul Haq’s wave of Islamisation in the 1980s brought about a stark change in Pakistan’s social and political scenarios. The nation’s Christians, one of the most highly regarded minorities, bore the brunt of this social transformation. Those who were affluent emigrated, leaving behind a majority of Pakistani Christians to make their peace with being regarded as second-class citizens in their own country.

“The mass migration of Christians in the eighties explains the absence of the cross today,” says Minerva Rebecca, a human resources manager in a non-profit organisation. “There’s nobody around to wear it anymore.” She also points out that the Christians who remain in Pakistan are socially marginalised and disenfranchised, and therefore not confident enough to display their religious identity. “They’re not part of higher social strata for them to be seen at gatherings where the cross may be noticed.”

Since the mass migration of Christians in the 1980s, the only overt display of the cross in the 1990s could be seen when one tuned in to catch a cricket match. Yousuf Youhana, the third Pakistani batsmen to score more than 6,000 runs in Test cricket, made the sign of the cross after completing every century. It was a proud moment for Pakistan, the green and white of the flag represented truly with both a Christian and a Hindu (Danish Kaneria) playing for the national team on the field.

In 2005, however, Pakistani Christians across the country, who prayed fervently for Youhana during every cricket match, were disappointed following his conversion to Islam. Confused by rumours and controversies surrounding his conversion, young Christian boys who looked up to Youhana for inspiration felt let down.

“He was my role model,” says Eleazar Mikhail, a student at the St. Patrick’s High School. “Everyone is subjected to discrimination at some point in their lives, whether it’s about religion or the way you look. I used to think if Yousuf Youhana didn’t succumb to the pressure, neither would I.”

Owing to these setbacks, Pakistani Christians are now trying to find a footing in society. Most are reduced to menial labour. And many are frequently subjected to forced conversions or accused of desecrating the Quran.

Bahadur Khan, who sweeps the streets of Karachi’s PECHS area early every morning, admits to facing hardships being a Christian in Pakistan. “I had to change my name from Pervaiz Masih to land this job – what does that tell you?” he asks. “I am not proud to do it, but I have a family to feed.”

In the evenings, however, when the sweeper is off duty, he looks forward to a cup of tea with friends from the Christian community in Mehmoodabad, where he lives. He finds the transition back to his faith a comforting one: “With my friends, I will always be Pervaiz Masih,” he adds cheerfully.

The law of the land

To a large extent, Masih’s insecurities about being openly Christian in Pakistan can be traced back to a single piece of legislature. Since the 1980s, Christians have increasingly become victims of humiliation and persecution through false allegations made under the notorious blasphemy law. Unfortunately, the Pakistani Penal Code (PPC) provides little guidance on what exactly constitutes blasphemy.

The law, a remnant of the 1860 British colonial criminal law, was revised in 1986 by General Haq in accordance with the Sharia. It was revised again in 1992 when the death penalty was made mandatory for convicted blasphemers under the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

In its earlier incarnation, the law applied equally to all religions. But in the revised version, the death penalty only applies to those who blaspheme against Islam. According to a 2001 US State Department report titled ‘International Religious Freedom,’ 55 to 60 Christians have been charged with blasphemy each year. Currently, more than a hundred accused are languishing in Pakistani jails, awaiting trial.

Admittedly, the number of arrests under the blasphemy law has decreased since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto approved two PPC amendments designed to reduce the abuse of Section 295-C. General Pervez Musharraf too suggested mild changes to the blasphemy law in April 2000, but withdrew his recommendations the following month. As a result, the law remains largely intact.

Following his visit to riot-hit Gojra in August 2009, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani hinted at changing the blasphemy law in a bid to facilitate ‘religious harmony’ in the country. Moreover, there is increasing acknowledgement that the blasphemy law is usually invoked in cases of political vendetta or rivalry or land disputes. Human rights activists continue to campaign for the law to be completely repealed.

A proud legacy

The current position of Pakistan’s Christians is a sharp departure from their subcontinental legacy. Karachi and Rawalpindi saw the first churches in Pakistan when Christianity was introduced to the region by the British rulers of India in the late eighteenth century. St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi is considered to be Pakistan’s largest church and is the most prominent Christian landmark in the country.

Most Christians who came to Pakistan were resident officers of the British Army and the government. During the development of Karachi’s infrastructure, a large Catholic Goan community was established by the British and the Irish before World War II. Christians, in Sindh and Punjab particularly, had been active pre-independence in their support for Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League. Encouraged by the Quaid’s promise of complete equality of citizenship, they rendered their services as journalists and propagandists to the movement.

In fact, Christians did their best to contribute in a positive way to society. For that reason, the cross in Pakistan has been mainly associated with education, healthcare and philanthropy.

A large portion of Pakistan’s elite owe their success to a solid educational grounding at St. Patrick’s High School and St. Joseph’s Convent School in Karachi and the Forman Christian College and St. Anthony’s High School in Lahore. Similarly, the Holy Family Hospital and the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre in Karachi and the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar were founded at a time when few healthcare facilities existed in Pakistan. All Christian institutions across the country portray a strong sense of nation building, rendering invaluable services to the people of Pakistan irrespective of caste, creed, and colour.

Being both, a Christian and Pakistani

In the context of current unrest within Pakistan, as religious fundamentalism has grown beyond proportions, Pakistani Christians find themselves in the midst of a grave situation. The increasing frequency and brutality of religious riots anger them, yet they remain optimistic about a system they hope will make things better. That hope is inspired by the very symbol that is shunned by Pakistanis – the cross, a symbol of strength, perseverance and endurance for Christians.

“One day we hope to see a Pakistan which will not differentiate between caste and creed as was promised by the Quaid,” says Jennifer Marshall, an ESL trainer in Karachi. “We are hopeful because the cross symbolises salvation for us.”

Meanwhile, constant and repeated demands for the repeal of the blasphemy law prove that Pakistani Christians are adamant to fight to keep the cross visible in their country.