Catholics in Pakistan



From the very beginning of Christianity, already in apostolic times, attempts were made to preach the Christian religion in what is now Pakistan. The first to come to this territory was one of the Twelve: St. Thomas or, less likely, St. Bartholomew. His presence at the Court of Gondopharnes, the famous king reigning at Taxila, near Rawalpindi between 19 and 45 A.D., is now universally admitted by historians. However, nothing very certain is known about his activities and influence. According to Eusebius, the early Church historian, it would seem that in the third century, Christian communities still existed in the provinces of the North-Chilas.

St. Thomas The Apostle
St. Thomas The Apostle

The territory may have been crossed by Christian travelers such as Pantoemus (about 180) or the Egyptian monk Kosmos Indicopleustos (about 550) or especially by Armenian traders and soldiers of the Crusades.

On the Silk Road, two Nestorian Crosses have been discovered. The Gilgit Cross has been discovered in a place (Kunodas) that is known to be an ancient burial place and provides evidence that, in the seventh century, a Nestorian monk was buried there. Another cross, also of the same period, has been found near Chilas.

During all those years the main religions were, first Hinduism, later Buddhism, and from the eighth century also Islam, while from 1600 Sikhism was also prevalent. Quite distinct from these existing religious systems and excluded from their membership were many thousands of outcastes. These so-called “untouchables” practiced a primitive and undefined religion, though maintaining a deep faith in God.

Sporadic Attempts

Mughal Empire
Mughal Empire

In 1581 a promising new activity was initiated by the Jesuits from Goa who had been invited to the Moghul Emperor Akbar’s Court in Delhi, and from there accompanied him to Lahore. First to arrive was Father Monserrat, who came from Delhi with the imperial army and passed through the whole Country on his way to Kabul in Afghanistan. He returned to find his fellow Jesuit Rudolph Acquaviva awaiting him in Lahore. They remained together at Akbar’s Court for some time and afterward accompanied by Emperor to his residence at Fatehpur Sikri. Such was the beginning of a remarkable mission that lasted for nearly two hundred years. The following are the most important features:

A third mission followed in 1594, when Fr. Jerome Xavier, a grand-nephew of St. Francis Xavier, and two companions arrived. They gave their full attention to the people and under the Emperor’s protection they exercised a rewarding apostolate.

In 1597 there was already a large church in Lahore, and in 1604 came a written declaration from the Emperor allowing all his subjects to embrace Christianity. Meanwhile, more priests arrived from Goa. They began publishing in Persian information on History.

Upon Akbar’s successor, Jehangir (1605-1627) the influence of Fr. Jerome Xavier was considerable. But the next Emperor, Shahjehan, showed himself less friendly, and in 1650 he ordered the destruction of the church. The later Moghul emperors as well as the Sikh rulers were on the whole hostile to the missions.

The Catholic population of Lahore at that time was composed of three different elements: the European (mostly Portuguese), the Armenians, and the Indian converts. In 1606 they numbered altogether between 40 and 50. In 1714 quite several soldiers were Christian.

To attend to their needs the famous first Apostolic Vicar of India, Dom Mathew de Castro, a converted Brahmin, visited Lahore in 1651. From Lahore also began various missionary expeditions to Kafiristan: in 1587 Fr. Monserrat, in 1602 Bento de Goes, in 1626 Fr. Joseph de Castro, and 1700 Antonio Magalhaes. After this, the number of Jesuits began to decrease, and by 1750 even the Christian soldiers had no longer a resident priests. Only twice a year did a Priest manage to visit them in Lahore, Multan, and Bhakar. In 1752 the remaining Christian artillerymen were deported to Kabul by the invading King Ahmed Shah.

In this same period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some Augustinians and Carmelites coming from Bombay or Goa evangelized Sindh near the Portuguese factories of Thatta. A few names of Carmelites are recorded: Redemptus, who was martyred in 1638 on the Island of Sumatra, had been clothed with the Carmelite habit at Thatta. Other names are recorded, but concerning their activities no details are available.
Real Beginnings

Nearly two centuries later, the freedom of religion which the British rulers granted to all inhabitants in every part of the empire, opened the way for the Church to spread its knowledge and influence in all regions of present-day Pakistan.

It began with the service to the various Christians scattered all over the provinces: in the army and the administration: British citizens as well as immigrants from the southern provinces of India. Wherever they were called, the Catholic priests would attend to the religious needs of their faithful. To Punjab and the North Western provinces came Capuchin priests from their headquarters in Agra while Carmelites and Jesuits came from Bombay to Sindh and Baluchistan. In all the cantonments as well as in the important administrative and railway centers the British arranged for the construction of churches schools and recreation halls.

In addition to these ministers for divine worship, religious Sisters were invited to attend to the education of the children, the very first Congregation to come was the Religious Sisters of Jesus and Mary who opened their first school in 1856 at Sialkot. Six years later another congregation of Religious Sisters, the Daughters of the Cross, came to Karachi.

The city of Lahore was selected in 1855 to become an Apostolic Vicariate and in 1886 it was made the See of the Catholic Diocese of Punjab. The North Western provinces of Kashmir and Kafiristan were constituted into an Apostolic Prefecture with headquarters in Rawalpindi in 1887. Sindh and Baluchistan remained connected with the Diocese of Bombay.

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Lahore
Sacred Heart Cathedral, Lahore

During this whole period from 1840 to 1890, the activities of the priests and religious remained restricted to the service of the foreign occupants. Meanwhile, the interest of the local inhabitants was growing and requests for closer contact with the Christian churches were becoming frequent. When, in 1888, the higher Church authorities entrusted the religious apostolate in Punjab to the Capuchins, that of the North Western Provinces to the Mill Hill Fathers, and that of Sindh and Baluchistan to the Jesuits the stage was set for local expansion. All over the country, especially in Punjab, more and more people were joining the Church. Since then there has been steady progress over the years.

The conversions in most parts of the country came almost exclusively from the lower classes of the population. The growth of Christianity was steady and gradual though slow evolution.

In Punjab, the diocese of Lahore stretched from Jullundur and Sirsa (in present-day India) to Bahawalpur. Direct mission work began from Sialkot in 1889. Their evangelization spread to the districts of Gujrat, Jhelum, Gujranwala, and Sheikhupura more particularly in those villages that sprang up in the new Chenab irrigated areas. Through the foundation of Catholic agricultural colonies, the influence of the Church radiated out to all the surrounding villages.

More men and women religious came out to join the Belgian Capuchins. The Sisters of Charity (Ghent) and the Franciscan Sisters of Lyon (France) attended to the education of girls while the German Franciscan Brothers cared for the boys. In 1911 the Irish Patrician Brothers took over from the Capuchin Fathers the management of St. Anthony’s High School.

The construction of the Bishop’s residence and the superb Cathedral manifested the growing strength of faith. Already in 1918, a beginning had been made with the formation of local religious sisters; in 1922 these became the Franciscan Tertiary Sisters of Lahore. In the same year, four Punjabi boys joined the Capuchin novitiate at Sardanha.

However, the extensiveness of the diocese was an obstacle to the intensity of the apostolate. In 1910 the extreme eastern districts had been ceded to the newly-formed Archdiocese of Simla-Delhi.

In 1936 the entire civil division of Multan was formed into the Prefecture of Multan and entrusted to the Italian Dominican Fathers who had six years earlier come to join the apostolate. The Dominican Sisters came with them to take care of their educational needs.

In the north, the districts of Sargodha and Gujrat were attached in 1938 to the Apostolic Prefecture of Rawalpindi and entrusted to the Mill Hill Fathers. Thus their territory was enlarged and included the entire civil divisions of Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan, Rawalpindi, and Sargodha. With these Mill Hill Fathers, the Irish Sisters of the Presentation had already been working intensively ever since 1895, and in 1912 the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary opened their first school and convent at Rawalpindi. Attention was given mostly to the education of youth. In 1939 this Prefecture was raised to the status of a diocese. Sindh and Baluchistan continued to remain part of the Archdiocese of Bombay. Jesuit Fathers, mostly from Spain, worked in this terrain. They established solid Catholic centers in the more important towns but did little direct evangelization. In 1934 the whole territory was detached from Bombay to form the Independent Mission of Karachi under the care of the Dutch Franciscan Fathers. One of their first foundations was the Congregation of the Franciscan Missionaries of Christ the King in 1937.

The Church made it her task to assist in the social and cultural uplift of the whole population, above all of the new converts. Educational and charitable institutions were established in towns and villages all over the country. Through the endeavors of the Church, several families belonging to the so-called untouchables have since then risen to economic self-reliance and betterment of their social status. When at the time of Partition and Independence in 1947, the majority of foreign or immigrant Christians left the country, the sons of the soil took over their task and spread all over the provinces and towns of the new State that is Pakistan.

Independent Pakistan

Pakistan Map
Pakistan Map

When on 14th August 1947 Pakistan has proclaimed an independent sovereign State, the Catholic Church in the established territory was part of two distinct ecclesiastical units: Sindh, Khairpur, and Baluchistan belonged to the ecclesiastical province of Bombay, while the Punjab, Bahawalpur, and the provinces of the North West depended on the Archdiocese of Delhi. Very soon however the necessary changes were made to adjust the Church administration to the boundaries of the new State.

The Diocese of Karachi was created on May 28, 1948, to cover the provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan, and two years later it was raised to the status of an Archdiocese governing the entire Church in Pakistan.

The existing dioceses of Lahore, Multan, and Rawalpindi, hitherto suffragans of Delhi, were joined with Karachi, and any portions of these dioceses lying outside Pakistan territory were definitively separated from them. The ecclesiastical territory of the Church in Pakistan thus corresponds entirely to the State territory.

As a further development, in 1958 the Archdiocese of Karachi was divided into two parts: Karachi itself with the surrounding areas remained in the care of the indigenous diocesan clergy, while the area around Hyderabad was formed into a new diocese and entrusted to the Franciscan Friars Minor.

In 1960, from the diocese of Multan, the three districts of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), Sahiwal, and Jhang were erected into a separate diocese with the headquarters at Lyallpur (Faisalabad). Both dioceses continued to remain with the Dominican Fathers; Americans in Multan and Italians in Faisalabad.

In 1973, Pope Paul VI raised the Pakistani Archbishop of Karachi to the dignity of a Cardinal, His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Cordeiro who became also a member of various Congregations of the Roman Curia, thus participating in the government of the Universal Church.

Though Pakistan was ideologically created as a Muslim State, its Government has always safeguarded the existence of the Catholic Church and has given freedom for its activities. Quite several new foundations have since been established. Newly arrived members of various religious Orders or Congregations joined in the life and activities of the different dioceses. Thanks to their help more churches, schools, hospitals, dispensaries, homes for the aged or invalids and handicapped as well as orphanages have been built in various major towns all over the country. All these institutions cater to people of all castes and creeds: they are equally open to the rich and the poor.

Of the greatest importance was the opening of formation and training houses for local candidates aspiring to religious and priestly life. In 1950, the Diocesan Minor Seminary of St. Mary in Lahore was opened, followed in 1951 by the Major Seminary of St. Pius X in Quetta. A big step forward was the setting up of the Regional Major Seminary of Christ the King in Karachi in 1956. In December 1994 the National Philosophical Seminary of St. Francis Xavier was inaugurated in Lahore. The number of Pakistani priests and religious is steadily increasing: all six dioceses already have Pakistani bishops. The Catechists’ Training Centre in Khushpur prepares young men to be catechists or pastoral assistants to priests in parishes. The Pastoral Institute in Multan offers a variety of shorter courses for priests, religious, catechists, and lay leaders.

St. Mary's Minor Seminary, Lahore
St. Mary's Minor Seminary, Lahore

The Catholic Church has a mission to reach out to all people with a message of love, peace, and justice, concretely rooted in the service of the needy and marginalized. In the last century, the work begun among the disadvantaged and marginalized by the Belgian Capuchins in Punjab has resulted in the flourishing communities we find there today. In recent decades, similar work is being done among the Bhil and Kohli tribes of southern Punjab and Sindh, and their response to the Gospel message augurs well for the growth of the local Church in that part of the county.

The Church also reaches out to peoples of all faiths to work in dialogue for the common good of the human family. In Pakistan, this takes on special meaning to search and work for common values with Islam in a spirit of understanding and strong faith in Almighty God. Indeed, by the fundamental principles of Christian doctrine, the Catholic Church in Pakistan tries to contribute as much as is in its power to make this world a better place to live in. The teaching of Vatican Council II in its “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” and in the Encyclical Letter “Peace on Earth” of Pope John XXIII are taken to inspire the efforts of the bishops, priests, and religious. It is to this object that educational and charitable institutions continually tend.

There are 552 Catholic educational institutions in Pakistan, including kindergartens. They give education, through the medium of English, Urdu, and Sindhi, to more than 150,000 Christian and Muslim students. Most of these institutions have been established during the past twenty-five years. Another feature, which has always characterized the work of the Church, is the care of the sick, handicapped, and destitute. This is evidenced in Pakistan by its hospitals (one of which is for lepers), projects for the eradication of leprosy, rural dispensaries and homes for orphans and disadvantaged children, and homes for handicapped children. Several centers have also been opened recently to help combat the menace of drug addiction. The total number of Catholic charitable institutions is 169.

Low-cost housing schemes have also provided hundreds of poor and low-income people with simple but decent accommodations. Catholic organizations like CRS and CARITAS have helped the Government substantially in rehabilitation and health projects for refugees and displaced persons.

The fact remains that most Pakistani Catholics belong socially and economically to the poorest class. Thanks to the educational endeavors of the Church, a good many have already attained satisfactory social standing as teachers, nurses, clerks, and in other professions.

Nonetheless, the problem remains to educate the Christian masses and to ensure them a decent means of livelihood. They must be able, as true citizens of Pakistan, to take up any remunerative work or honorable office, and not be restricted to manual jobs that no one else is prepared to take up. To realize that purpose the Church has constantly to develop in the minds of all her members a higher consciousness of their religious duties and social responsibilities, so that they may raise themselves in the esteem of their compatriots and serve their country with dignity.