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The Christian contribution

December 26, 2010


A Pakistani Christian woman and child decorate a Christmas tree in a Catholic church in Peshawar, Pakistan on Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. – AP

KARACHI: Christmas seems like a natural time to ponder over the Christian community's contribution to Karachi, as well as the travails faced by the community in Pakistan in general and the city in particular.

Karachi is not and largely has not — in its short history — been a mono-cultural city. Speaking in the context of religion, though Muslims adhering to various interpretations may form the largest demographic group in the metropolis, it is home to various other faith groups. Christians of various denominations are one of the most visible of these groups, with perhaps the community's contributions to the city being greater in proportion to its size in numbers.

Despite the upsurge in violence targeting both the religious minorities and majority in Pakistan following the events of September 11, 2001, symbols of Christianity abound in the city. They can be small and almost non-descript, such as a crucifix hanging from the rear-view mirror of a taxi or rickshaw or religious stickers plastered on the back of a school van. Or they can be grand and very much part of the city's landscape, such as the majestic St Patrick's Cathedral or the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital.

The most obvious symbols of the city's Christian heritage, largely a product of the British colonial era, are the magnificent places of worship. Aside from the aforementioned St Patrick's, other notable city churches include the Holy Trinity Cathedral, St Andrew's Church and St Anthony's. Yet apart from these historic structures, more humble Christian houses of worship can also be found in the city. A visit to one of Karachi's shanty-towns with significant Christian populations, such as Esa Nagri in Gulshan-i-Iqbal and Pahar Ganj in North Nazimabad, will reveal modest churches that look like ordinary buildings, the only thing identifying the place as a church being the large cross over the door.

The Christian community, along with other minority groups such as Hindus and Parsis, has made major contributions to the city's health and education needs. Apart from Seventh Day Adventist, other major hospitals and health facilities with Christian links include the Holy Family Hospital and the Mary Adelaide Leprosy Centre. On the other hand many of the city's top schools were established by missionaries and for decades have produced students who have gone to the top of their professions.

As for the ethnic make-up of Karachi's Christian community, there are two distinct groups: Goan Christians, many of whom reside in Saddar around St Patrick's, and Punjabi Christians. Anglo-Indians are much less visible and it would be interesting to know how many still remain in Karachi.

Yet as mentioned earlier things are far from perfect for the Christians of Karachi. Rising intolerance in society together with external factors such as the war on terror have proved to be a lethal mix, with ramifications for the city's Christians. Perceived injustices committed by western governments in Muslim lands are linked with local Christians, who have nothing to do with the often questionable decisions taken in Washington D.C., London and other western capitals.

Like their fellow Pakistanis, the Christians of Karachi have not been spared the wrath of terrorism. One of the most savage attacks against this community was the assault on an NGO in Rimpa Plaza in 2002. Signs that all is not well include security personnel posted outside churches, with extra vigilance on Christmas. The situation outside many mosques and Imambargahs of the city is not too different.

Yet it is hoped that terrorism is a temporary plague and that when it subsides, the communal harmony and tolerance that was the hallmark of yesteryear can be re-established and that the Christian citizens of Karachi will continue to contribute to the progress of this metropolis.