Forty Christians from Pakistan – finally acquitted and released from jail – are to benefit from a basketball court, counselling sessions and money for start-up businesses so they can re-build their lives and put the past behind them.
Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted and other suffering Christians, has agreed a 70,000 EUR (£61,000) plan to help rehabilitate the men acquitted in January following an out-of-court settlement.
Returning to their homes after five years in prison, the men, who had been accused of lynching two Muslims, will receive a comprehensive programme of reintegration back into the Christian district of Youhanabad, Lahore. They will be offered six counselling sessions over the course of 12 months, finance for small businesses, including money to rent premises, as well as 10 auto-rickshaws and five rickshaw vans.
Key to the reintegration programme is basketball which will be played on a court erected opposite the presbytery (priest’s house) serving Youhanabad’s St John’s Catholic Church. St John’s parish priest Father Francis Gulzar stressed the need for the basketball court “to engage the group in healthy physical activity as well as give them a platform to get together and help each other to overcome the trauma and depression of being imprisoned for something they were not guilty for.” He added: “Returning to lives of low wages and high rates of unemployment with a history of spending almost five years in prison [means] that life is going to be really difficult and challenging for these men.” During their incarceration in Lahore, there were widespread reports of mistreatment against the men and two of them died while in prison.
There was widespread criticism of police behaviour leading up to the men’s arrests. Church leaders claimed police had gone “house to house aiming at arresting as many Christians as possible” while investigating the lynching of the two Muslim men. The lynching came amid riots sparked by suicide bomb blasts targeting Christians attending Sunday services both at St John’s and Christ Church, also in Youhanabad.
At least 20 people died and 80 were injured in the blasts, which took place in March 2015. ACN Executive President Thomas Heine-Geldern said: “Given their long and terrible ordeal behind bars, the need to help the ex-prisoners could not be more important.
Pastoral care is of great importance to regain mental strength. In addition, studies have repeatedly highlighted how sport can play a vital part in the process of recovery from trauma. Combining this with financial help is crucial as they and their families rebuild their lives.”