"Christians Are Going to Have a Bad Time"

Sister Pilar Vila-Sanjuan Tells of Tension in Pakistan

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LAHORE, Pakistan, OCT. 9, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The whirlwind of war in neighboring Afghanistan has dealt a blow to Muslim-Christian relations in Pakistan, cultivated for so long by people such as Sister Pilar Vila-Sanjuan.

This Spanish nun has worked in the school of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary of Lahore for 35 years. War and fundamentalist furor now threaten the school´s Christian population.

Here, Sister Vila-Sanjuan, 55, talks about the situation in the city.

–Q: How are you experiencing the war in your school?

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: Right now, I can hear the cries of the fundamentalist protesters from the other side of the school walls, saying: “Death to America!” Yesterday, they insulted me on the street. They yelled, “Disgusting American!” — at me, who am from Barcelona!

–Q: Why don´t you leave, like other volunteers?

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: I´m afraid the authorities would be thrilled. They barely tolerate us Christians. We have a quota of foreign religious and it cannot be increased so, if someone leaves, they are glad. But I am not going. …

I educate 70 boys and girls together, Muslims and Christians. Children with problems — autistic, maladjusted. This is why they let me stay. … The project is beginning to work fantastically.

–Q: Is coexistence among you affected by the war?

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: It has been very sad to see how some Muslim teachers were happy about bin Laden´s attacks on the United States. My God! All those innocent dead!

–Q: But … those teachers weren´t good Muslims. How could they be happy?

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: Here, millions of Pakistanis are living this war with religious fervor as a holy crusade of justice after having suffered so many humiliations and defeats. And many Muslim teachers feel this way: They could not hide their euphoria the day of the [Sept.11] attack.

–Q: And now, what are they saying?

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: They think that the women who are now dying under the bombs in Afghanistan are no better or worse than the ones who died in the United States, but nobody has ever worried about their deaths.

Now, instead, [they are worried about] those of New York and Washington, as this whole war is unleashed. They think the hour of their vengeance has arrived, which they confuse with justice.

–Q: And you, Sister, what have you said to them?

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: Here, we educate 2,000 Muslim and Christian children. The day of the New York killing, I could not say anything in my daily greeting to the children. Anyone could have caused trouble for us and the tension is great.

–Q: Why?

–Every day we hoist the flag, sing the anthem, I say some words, but that day I was … I couldn´t say anything. I only spoke of peace and love, without saying anything specifically.

–Q: Do you think things will calm down?

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: I don´t know. The Christian children who come to school tell me about the insults on the street and how their parents have had to secure the door with furniture because they fear attacks on their homes.

–Q: But you have been there many years …

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: The Order of Jesus and Mary has been in Pakistan for 125 years, but now we can no longer celebrate this. The streets are full of posters of bin Laden; for them, he is a hero, a “caudillo” [leader], they believe in him. Christians are going to have a bad time, a very bad time.

–Q: How many are they?

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: One million. They are the poorest, the most marginalized. It doesn´t matter if they have a degree from Harvard — they are not given work. We have sent Christian Pakistani sisters to study in the United States, at good universities, and then they have not wanted them. To be a Christian here is to be impure.

–Q: Do you educate boys and girls?

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: The Muslims do not allow them to be educated together; the truth is, they are not interested in educating the girls too much, so they leave some girls with us. But Muslim boys are not allowed to mix with Christians or girls.

–Q: What do the Muslim girls say?

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: What they hear at home. They hate the role of their government, giving airspace to the Americans for the attack on their Muslim brothers in Afghanistan. I am not sure the government can control the streets. …

–Q: Why?

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: Eight million people live here in Lahore; 80% are illiterate. Believe me, it is difficult to keep order. There are protests. I can hear them right now.

–Q: Up until now they have been controlled.

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: In Islamabad, which is a very small city, the government can control the situation, but here … I´m afraid that, if they get out of control, they will eat us, Christians, up …

–Q: Then, go back to Spain …

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: Wouldn´t think of it! The cook, who is a Muslim, came to see me yesterday, because half of our employees are Muslim and half are Christian; otherwise, they would not allow us to maintain this. Well, he came to see me and said: “Sister, I have been baptized.”

–Q: This already has merit …

–Sister Vila-Sanjuan: Yes, and he did not even tell us before; he told us afterward. How can I go now! Moreover, there are the new Pakistani sisters, virtually half the congregation. I cannot go when things get tough. What an example that would be!

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