For Christians in Pakistan, pandemic lockdown spells hunger, hardship

STRUGGLING CHRISTIAN FAMILIES in Pakistan, facing hardship and hunger as a consequence of the COVID-19 lockdown in the country, will be the beneficaries of emergency aid provided by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

The measures taken by Pakistan to contain the coronavirus pandemic have further exacerbated the social hardship already facing the Christian minority in the country. The bishops of the Dioceses of Faisalabad, Islamabad Rawalpindi and Lahore appealed to ACN for help. The prelates have proposed a broad emergency program to provide food parcels to more than 5000 of the poorest families, families that were already living below the poverty threshold before the pandemic, and who are now facing a desperate situation. ACN will support this program with an initial aid package totalling $165,000.

Khushpur is an almost entirely Christian village in the Diocese of Faisalabad

According to official figures, as of May 27, more than 59,000 Pakistanis have been infected by the virus and 1225 have died. The two hardest-hit regions are the provinces of Sindh and Punjab.

“Christians, who make up around 2 percent of the population of the country, are among the poorest members of society in Pakistan. They have been particularly hard hit by the economic consequences of the coronavirus lockdown and the other restrictions imposed since the end of March this year. The coronavirus and the lockdown have deprived them of their already meagre livelihoods, and forced them to live through the crisis in extremely cramped and overcrowded conditions with a minimum of resources. We simply cannot leave them to face a cruel choice between hunger and infection,” explained the executive president of ACN International, Dr. Thomas Heine-Geldern.

According to local reports, and as ACN recently reported, certain NGOs in Pakistan and certain Muslim leaders have refused to help Christians and other religious minorities under existing COVID-19 emergency aid programs—even though these minorities are among those hardest hit by the consequences of the pandemic.

“The state-sponsored aid programs for the most part exclude the religious minorities, who are de facto second-class citizens and only rarely able to access state aid. Religious discrimination is sadly nothing new in Pakistan. What is deeply concerning, however, is that even during this global crisis such minorities are being clearly disadvantaged,” Heine-Geldern said.

Many Christians work as day laborers, domestic servants, cleaners or kitchen staff, or sometimes as street traders or laborers in the brickworks. They earn the lowest wages and are dependent on their daily wage to feed their families. “All these areas of employment are precisely the ones that have been most impacted by the economic shutdown, and many Christian employees have been simply dismissed without notice by families for whom they have worked for years, because these families are afraid that the poor may bring infection into their homes,” ACN‘s executive president added.

In Faisalabad the emergency aid program supported by ACN not only involves the distribution of food parcels but also includes an awareness-raising campaign, aimed at informing families via radio and digital media as to how to protect themselves against the virus. According to Heine-Geldern, there is also a plan to distribute face masks to the faithful in the churches and equip priests, catechists, diocesan staff and other volunteers with personal protection equipment as they continue to carry out their pastoral and social aid work.

“A major priority of our organization involves helping Christians who are suffering discrimination and persecution, and this is clearly the case in Pakistan. We have already provided emergency aid in the form of Mass stipends for the support of priests and their pastoral mission, but this is clearly not enough. Of course we simply do not have the resources to meet all the needs, but we think it is important to make this gesture of solidarity, and we are hoping that other organizations and many people of goodwill will join with us in our efforts. Otherwise, Christians in Pakistan will be facing the threat of extinction,” Heine-Geldern warned.

—Maria Lozano