To have lived for 11 years in Pakistan gives one the ability to understand the situation in which Christians live in that country, to analyze the causes and consequences of the terrible attack on two churches in Lahore two weeks ago, and to propose and enact solutions to the marginalization and persecution of Christians.
I see hope in the Church in Pakistan “when I live daily with ordinary Christians who go forward despite all the difficulties. I see it in the family that flees their home because they are Christian, in the youth killed for not wanting to convert to Islam, in mothers who move with their families forward teaching the children love of Christ, in Christians who the day after the attacks on our churches filled the churches again without fear,” said Salesian Father Miguel Angel Ruiz to ZENIT. Father Ruiz has lived for eleven years as a missionary in Lahore. In that Archdiocese, he has been part of the Youth Council and later the Council of Administration. For the last seven years, he was the Director of the Salesian work in Lahore, which includes basic and technical education, and the largest boarding school of Christian boys in the country. Currently, he is studying Canon Law in Rome.
ZENIT: What is the present situation of the Christian community?
Father Ruiz: If one is to describe it in general, one can say at least that it ‘is very bad.’ The two sectors of the population that suffer most are also the two most important for the future of our community: the women and young people. Women find themselves in a dual situation of discrimination, both for being women as well as for being Christians. If already the value of woman is so negative, whose testimony in a court is worth half that of a man, by being Christian she is devalued even more. When they want to insult contemptuously a Christian woman she is called in society a “Christian dog.”
In regard to youth, the previous Archbishop of Lahore described the Christian youth of Pakistan as frustrated human beings. Despite the fact that the youth have an incredible potential, there is very little possibility to change the destiny of one’s life, which is worsened by being Christian, while subjecting them to a continuous lack of opportunities, labor discrimination and scandal. This can explain why in last year’s reports on the country’s youth, up to 95% of young people who want to leave the country. I think that in the case of Christian young people it could be 100%.
ZENIT: After the tragic attacks in the last weeks, what hope does the Church have in Pakistan?
Father Ruiz: Hope is a key word in the present moment of the Church in Pakistan. If one looks at the past and the present of our situation, one sees few reasons for hope … However, the fact that there are no visible or external reasons for hope does not mean that there is no hope. Our greatest hope is Hope with a capital H … it is Jesus Christ, it is God our Father, it is the living and operating presence of the Holy Spirit in each Christian of the country. I don’t see hope in the country’s politicians, or in the present structures, or in important speeches … I see it when I live daily with ordinary Christians who go forward despite all the difficulties. I see it in the family that flees from its home because it is Christian, in the youth killed for not wanting to convert to Islam, in mothers who move their families forward, teaching their children love of Christ, in the Christians who the day after the attacks on our churches filled the churches again without fear. There were so many people who wanted to be present at the funeral Masses that the police force had to control them so that only residents had access to the places of worship. More than 10,000 people gathered in the Catholic parish that day. That is our hope.
ZENIT: Knowing that the future is unpredictable but taking into account the existing tension, what could happen in the next couple of months in Pakistan?
Father Ruiz: The future is certainly unpredictable and the history of Pakistan demonstrates it. The country has been at the edge of chaos on several occasions and suddenly something happens that changes everything. However, if the future is unpredictable the present is very visible: there is discrimination because of the fact we are who we are, the loss of missionaries and Congregations, the exodus of Christians in other areas of the country depending on where violence is unleashed, indiscriminate arrests of Christians by the police — in a word, a situation that calls Christians to make a greater effort to continue surviving each day in Pakistan.
ZENIT: What is the role of the International Community and of the Holy See in this situation?
Father Ruiz: First, I must say that in the last seven years the Holy See has defended us in a continuous and very courageous way. The work of Vatican diplomacy isn’t easy, which represents both the Holy Father as well as the Holy See in countries such as Pakistan. It is often necessary to go beyond the protocols learned in the Academy, if one wants to be a true Pastor and serve the Church in those who are part of her. I have lived this support very closely and it is right to recognize it, because often one can have the impression that certain services in the Church separate us from the people, and this isn’t so in the case of Pakistan.
Much more could be done at the international level. Pope Francis himself has complained that an attempt is being made to hide this persecution, because we are also speaking of persecution in Pakistan. I agree that we are not the only ones being persecuted … but we also must denounce loudly and clearly that we have now become a target, whereas before we were not. The double suicide attack demonstrates it. Henceforth Christians in Pakistan will not live safely in any part of the country because Youhanabad was our sancta sanctorum, the only place where Christians felt safe … and now they don’t even have that. A country like Pakistan looks much at its surroundings – they don’t want to be isolated and here is where the International Community can play a very decisive role: If pressure is exerted on the government when moments of tension arrive they will not be able to act with impunity against our people. I firmly believe that this pressure avoided a Black Friday after the attacks; however, while we are doing this interview, the police continue to foster the exodus from Youhanabad, arresting young people indiscriminately and even minors for the mere fact of being Christians. How many manifestations of support to other collectives would be organized in many countries if this were to happen? Are there some countries of the West that are interested in the fact that there are true Christians … or are we only an obstacle for certain agendas? The Christian is always persecuted by the intolerant, with both physical as well as ideological violence. I will only believe in some international organisms when beyond criticizing in word, they get to work with concrete measures.
ZENIT: What can be done to improve this situation of violence and persecution against Christians?
Father Ruiz: First of all it’s necessary not to forget the Gospel… who we are. We cannot answer violence with violence and we cannot justify in any way actions such as the lynching of two Muslims by some furious Christians of Youhanabad. To say that those who did this weren’t Christians would be to hide ourselves; to justify it as logical reaction at the moment of the attacks is to forget our message which is what humanity needs at this time and to initiate a spiral of reactions against us.
The situation must be denounced without fear. All peaceful means within our reach must be used to continue helping the Christians of Pakistan: donations so that they improve their status in the country, coordinate the different groups of support and defense such as Caritas, the Justice and Peace Commission, to help them travel to the country so that they can b
e valid evangelizing agents in our society, as they know what it is to suffer due to the faith. And pray, pray always, in season and out of season as Scripture reminds us. And then we have to let our police forces act duly to avoid violence continuing to extend itself, with the consequent Christian genocide that we are witnessing.
ZENIT: What is the work of the Salesians in that country?
Father Ruiz: We Salesians in Pakistan are on the side of the neediest young people, as in any other part of the world, always evangelizing. We make no distinction between Christian and Muslim young people when they ask to receive a basic or technical education, which we offer both in Quetta (near the border with Afghanistan), as well as in Lahore (near the border with India). Yes, we insist that young Muslims accept our identity as Christians to form part of our structure. It wouldn’t be acceptable that the school population being mainly Catholic, were to adapt to other creeds or styles. And I must say that we have never had a problem with young people in the Center. What is more, when days come, such as that of Don Bosco, it is Muslim young people themselves who ask to be with the rest of the students during the Mass, instead of doing other alternative things that we offer them, taking care of an atmosphere of mutual respect and growth. They never perceive us as a threat, because we don’t engage in proselytism. We live what we preach and what we preach isn’t dangerous for them. Curious, therefore, is the transformation that many of them feel by being among us, to the point of crying on the Day of Graduation, on having to leave the Center. We work for vocations and in solidarity with the local Church in all that we can. We are not going to reduce our work to simple social promotion because in Pakistan the faith is lived very intensely: they need us as the consecrated persons we are and they exact from us that we live our consecration totally.