New Year Greetings from Fr. Liam in Pakistan

Fr. Liam O'Callaghan provides an update from Pakistan, where he works full-time in Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) and Interreligious dialogue (IRD) issues in the diocese of Hyderabad with Columban co-worker, Danish Yakoob.

Happy New Year! I hope this finds you and your loved ones well and in good health. I would like to share with you some of last year’s happenings for me.

2020 was turned upside-down by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused such devastation, death and suffering; worldwide almost 80 million people have been infected with 1.75 million deaths, many experts see those figures almost certainly to be an under-estimation. With further spikes of infections and new variants of the virus emerging, especially in Britain and elsewhere, resulting in fresh lock-downs in many countries, 2021 is going to begin very much as 2020 ended, but the arrival of vaccines offer hope to a struggling world, though we are still going to have to be very careful for a while yet.

In Pakistan, the first two cases were confirmed on February 26th 2020 in Karachi, and quickly spread to all provinces; on April 1st, the country was put on a nation-wide lock-down and extended twice until May 9th 2020. The lock-down caused much suffering especially to daily wage earners, who became unemployed overnight and many Christians fell into this category with various church groups and NGOs helping out with food rations, as well as an economic relief package form the government. As lock-down was lifted, numbers did not grow as much as was feared and people became complacent about wearing face masks etc. If it spread like in other countries, the consequences could have been disastrous, how it did not – different strain of virus? immunity? – can only be guessed at. On November 26th, the government announced ‘smart’ lock-downs and closed all educational institutions until January 11th 2021, as cases began to rise. The official figures for Pakistan are 469,482 infections and 9,816 deaths though the actual figure is likely to be much higher.

Once the lock-down started, so much of what is considered normal was put on hold with schools, churches and normal activities closed or postponed. To communicate we now use Zoom calls and it has helped the Columban group here stay in touch with one another as we are scattered in four different cities around the Sindh province. We are nine in total in Pakistan– two lay missionaries and seven ordained – from four different countries, namely, New Zealand, Fiji, Philippines and Ireland. Our priority areas of work are tribal ministry, justice and peace, ecological work and inter-faith relations.

I am based in an apartment in a Muslim community in Hyderabad city, population 1.73 million, the second biggest city in Sindh province after Karachi. I am working full-time in Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) and Interreligious dialogue (IRD) issues in the diocese of Hyderabad with Columban co-worker, Danish Yakoob. We are being funded by the Irish government overseas aid through Misean Cara to run projects in communities and schools on environmental issues as the situation is so bad here; Pakistan is the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change for the 20-year period from 1999-2018 according to Germanwatch Climate Risk Index 2020, which has led directly to 10,000 deaths through extreme weather events in that period. Our environmental project in 2020 had to be cancelled; and with their agreement, the unspent funding was diverted to our Covid-19 response efforts.

Politically, Pakistan is struggling once again. In July 2018, the general election took place which brought former cricket World cup winning captain, Imran Khan, and his PTI party to power. However, he failed to get an overall majority and had to enter into a fragile coalition. However, as the government continues to struggle, there have been three cabinet reshuffles, two of them in 2020 (April and December). The Covid-19 pandemic had a severe effect on the political situation in 2020 as the government struggled to cope with the on-going crisis. In September 2020, a coalition of 11 opposition parties, the Pakistan Democratic Movement, was formed with the aim of replacing the Imran Khan regime. They held big gatherings in a number of cities in recent weeks and have planned a ‘long march’ to Islamabad this month. The political climate of great uncertainty is sure to continue.

Economically, the country is struggling very badly with a high level of indebtedness. According to the IMF, Government debt rose to 76.7% of GDP, Pakistan already owes the IMF $5.8 billion from past bailouts, and has only once completed its past programs. A weaker rupee resulted in an inflation rate of 6.7% in 2019 and was expected to peak at 11.1% in 2020 (according to the World Economic Outlook, IMF). Due largely to the Covid-19 pandemic, economic growth slowed to -1.5% in 2020 but is estimated to pick up to 2% in 2021.

The Human Rights Watch 2020 report makes for sobering reading, Although Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged to make social justice a priority after taking office in July 2018, his administration has increased restrictions on media, the political opposition, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Women, religious minorities, and transgender people continued to face violence, discrimination, and persecution, with authorities often failing to provide adequate protection or hold perpetrators accountable. Pakistani law enforcement agencies were responsible for human rights violations, including detention without charge and extrajudicial killings.

There continues to be a high level of fear among religious minorities and the continued abuse of the so-called blasphemy laws leads to much of this fear. The Pakistani government did not amend or repeal blasphemy law provisions that provide a pretext for violence against religious minorities, as well as arbitrary arrests and prosecution. Hundreds have been arrested over blasphemy allegations, most of them members of religious minorities. The death penalty is mandatory for blasphemy, and about 40 people remain on death row.

Over five million primary-school-age children are out of school, most of them girls, for reasons including lack of schools in their areas, child marriage, and gender discrimination. School closures because of the lock-down and many people’s limited access to on-line facilities means that this school year will be severely affected for many children and may have to be repeated. Pakistan still has a lot to do according to the report to create a fairer society and there is not a lot to indicate it will happen any time soon.

I wish you all the blessings you and your loved ones need at this time and that the recent celebration of the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us, will assure us all that God is with us in the ups and downs of daily life. I especially pray that the new-born prince of peace be a source of good news, love and peace for you throughout the New Year.

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Fr. Liam works for justice, peace and the integrity of creation and regularly contributes to Columban publication, Vocation for Justice (V4J).

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