Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) spoke to Father Emmanuel Asi, executive director of the Catholic Bible Commission of Pakistan since it was founded in 2002, about the situation of Christians in his country, and his apostolate in Pakistan. Father Asi, a priest in the Archdiocese of Lahore, sat down with ACN’s Carlos Rosas-Jiménez to speak about the sacred nature of the Bible for the faithful.
What is life like for Christians in Pakistan?
Pakistan is an Islamic Republic with a population of 230 million, 97% of whome are Muslims. The remaining 3% are minorities, including Hindus, Christians and Sikhs. The majority of the 1.5 million Christians are Catholic. Life is difficult for those who, like Christians, do not follow Islam. There is no religious freedom.
But the Constitution states that “every citizen has the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion,” and that every religious denomination “shall have the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions.” So what is going on?
On paper we are allowed to do everything, we have rights; but in practice, in politics, in social life, in academia, in the workplace, there is lots of discrimination and difficulties for our youth – especially those who want to study at university, or who are looking for work. You can do whatever you like within the Church, you have full freedom for that.
You can run your schools, your institutions, your parishes, your community, conduct any program, print Bibles and books. But as soon as you go out into society, into the street, the office, the workplace, that is where the difficulties and discrimination begin.
What is the biggest challenge for Pakistani Christians?
The main challenge is to remain faithful and be brave in everyday life. We have a great blessing, which is the fact that most of our people are young. Around 65% of the people that go to church are under 40. That means that the Church is very much alive. But our main problem, our main challenge, is education, because the educational levels in Pakistan are very low, and illiteracy is rampant.
On the other hand, the Christian population continues to grow, and this is another challenge: how to reach people? The bishops want to open new parishes. We have enough priests and vocations, so we will have enough priests in the future; that is not the problem. The difficulty is in opening new parishes, building parish houses, and reaching the people.
How does the Bible Commission spread the Gospel message in Pakistan?
Over the past 20 years, since the Catholic Bible Commission was founded, we have done much to bring the Word of God closer to the people, and the people closer to the Word of God. This is our mission.
People want to listen, they want to read God’s Word. We have a variety of programs for people to participate in. For example, we have one called “Hundred Thousand Friends of the Bible,” with people from all over Pakistan who have their own Bible and like to read it for at least five minutes a day.
Last year, in November, we put audio readings of the Bible online for people who cannot read. That way, people could listen to the Word of God. We also have the Bible for Children, and the YouCat Bible, printed in Urdu, thanks to ACN. We have printed 70,000 Bibles.
We also have Bible Marathons in all our dioceses, with 2,000 participants around the country. Over a period of 127 hours the Bible is read out in full, non-stop, day and night. People have been every enthusiastic and spiritually touched by this program.
Could you give us an example of how the Bible has changed people’s lives?
I have many testimonies. There was one person who was illiterate, he couldn’t read. When I spoke to him, he said: “I want to read the Bible, but I cannot read.” So I told him that in the Bible there is a special blessing for those who touch the Word of God. I said to him: “Every day you should touch a page of the Bible, each word of the Bible. Go line by line, line by line, and obtain this blessing with your fingers, because it is written in the Bible that there is a blessing for those who touch the Word of God.”
The plan was that every day he would open the Bible and run his fingers over some lines. He did so, and two and a half years later he came to see me. He was so excited and moved! He told me: “I received many blessings, much conversion and change in my life. I touched the whole Bible.” And so, I gave him a certificate, because we give out certificates to people who read the whole Bible.
What is work outside of the Church like, especially in a Muslim majority country?
Firstly, we host many seminars, and we invite many people from other religions. Recently we held a seminar on spirituality, and we had people from six different religions. Secondly, we work with university professors and students of Comparative Religious Studies. Thirdly, we have direct dialogue. We live side by side with other religions, day and night. We live with them, speak to them, they are welcomed into our homes, and we into theirs.
Would you like to convey a final message to ACN and its benefactors?
I would like to thank people from all over the world, people from ACN, and all those who provide us with financial aid, and who support us with your prayers. I ask them to keep helping, especially Pakistan. In the name of our people: Please, keep helping us as much as you can!
No matter how critical the situation, no matter how bitter the reality, we must keep our hope in God alive. Only hope can give us a new life. In our language we use this term when a woman is pregnant, we say that she is “Umeed (امید),” that she is “with hope,” as she will be bringing new life into the world. Hope is what makes you be fruitful and multiply.