Dominican priest helps COVID-19-affected families in Pakistan

SAGAR MASIH AWAITS FREEDOM FROM HIS BRICK KILN before Christmas. In 2019, Masih took a peshgi—an advance on his pay—from a bhatta (brick kiln) owner to pay for the treatment of his paralyzed father.

In return, he committed to make 1,000 bricks every day at the kiln in Bhger Singh village, Punjab province to pay off the loan of 150,000 rupees ($850).  

Together with his four children, Masih, who is Protestant, wakes up at 4AM every day to dig soil and prepare mud for molding the bricks until midday. The mud must be softened in the evening for the task next day. The government of Punjab has fixed wages at 1,295 rupees ($7) for the production of 1,000 bricks but laborers like Masih get only 900 rupees ($5).

“Three hundred rupees are deducted by the kiln owner. The tractor driver also gets his share. It’s hard to save money due to daily needs and food,” he told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).   

Pakistan ranks eighth on the Global Slavery Index with an estimated 3,186,000 people living in modern slavery suffering bondage and labor exploitation. Recent surveys have estimated that about 4.5 million people, including some 1 million children, work in slave-like conditions at around 20,000 brick kilns in Pakistan. Many belong to already marginalized religious minority communities, such as Christians, in the Muslim-majority nation.

Their situation worsened last year when a nationwide lockdown was imposed amid the pandemic. Seventy percent of Christians, particularly daily-wagers and laborers, lost their jobs or reported reduced income during Pakistan’s nationwide lockdown, claims a survey by the Pakistan Partnership Initiative, a Christian organization based in Islamabad.

Between 60-70 percent saw a drop in monthly income; 80 percent of businesses closed or collapsed in Christian communities during the lockdown; and 60 percent reported exhausting their savings, states the report published in August 2020. The income of churches dipped by up to 80 percent, it added.

According to Father James Channan, O.P, director of the Peace Center in Lahore, some Islamic aid organizations only helped poor Muslims. “They only offered food and cash to Christians on the condition of conversion. We are working hard to proclaim interfaith dialogue in our society,” said Father Channan who has been engaged in Christian Muslim dialogue for the past four decades and is a project partner of ACN.

Father Channan (center) and beneficiaries

Christian groups like the Peace Center and Caritas Pakistan have been offering food, hygiene kits, psychosocial support, and cash for work to religious minorities as part of COVID-19 response programs. Since May 2020, the organizations have supported some 2000 families in three cities of Punjab province.

“Sixty percent of the beneficiaries were Christians. The rest were Muslims and Hindus. Dominican friars reached out to the deserving families in slums without any discrimination. The lockdown and other measures helped curbed COVID-19, but left people in miserable condition,” said Father Channan.

Recently, the former Vice Provincial of the Dominican order in Pakistan distributed ration bags among 50 COVID-affected families of Lahore and surrounding villages. Sanitary workers and brick makers thanked the priest and joined him in prayer.

“We are all siblings in the common human family. Despite their difficulties, minorities of Pakistan must follow Christ and heal others. The pandemic brought tough times, but we shouldn’t be discouraged,” said Father Channan addressing the faithful at Harmony Evangelical Faith Church in Youhanabad, the largest Christian neighborhood of Lahore.

Masih travelled for two hours to reach the distribution point. “We hope to live in the Lahore outskirts once Church leaders helps us in returning the peshgi. The brick kilns have turned us to dust. We shall work in factories for a better living,” he said.

After Christmas, Caritas Pakistan send a message of thanks to ACN for its support of a distribution of food, warm clothes and psychosocial kits benefitting the poor in 12 communities. ACN supports the Peace Center in Lahore for its work in promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue. The Center also offers catechism courses to help faithful give testimony of their Christian faith and to give Christian confidence in speaking with Muslims.

—Kamran Chaudhry