The Catholic Church in Pakistan “goes to the margins” to free Christians from slavery.
The mighty Indus flows through the Pakistani province of Sindh. The land around the life-giving river is the birthplace of many civilisations. As early as 8000 BC, the first people settled here and began to practise farming. From the former provincial capital of Hyderabad, the road cuts southwards through fields as far as the eye can see. Men, women and children work there in the heat. It is early morning, and the thermometer shows 32 degrees Celsius. At the height of summer, it regularly rises to over 50 degrees.
The charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) accompanies Samson Shukardin, the Catholic Bishop of Hyderabad, on a visit to the area that was hit by the flooding disaster in the late summer of 2022. He explains that the workers in the fields receive no wages for their toil. “All the lands in Sindh province belong to big landowners,” he says. “The workers apply to be allowed to cultivate the land and live on it. If the owner agrees, they can start farming. They must pay for the seeds and tools themselves, and many go into debt to do so. If the harvest is successful, they are allowed to keep half of the income while the other half goes to the landowner.”
The farmers use the income to pay their debts and buy the seeds for the coming season. Theoretically, the farm workers and their families can earn a modest living this way. But in practice, the majority are caught in a deep debt trap that turns them into the serfs of the rich landowners. If a harvest fails, the families not only lose their own share, but they must also compensate the landowner for his expected profit. If they are unable to pay, they must stay and perform forced labour. This form of medieval servitude determines the fate of many predominantly Christian and Hindu families in the Sindh region. The flood disaster made this misery worse: all the harvests failed, villages were destroyed by the floods and people were driven deeper into dependency.
For Bishop Shukardin, the most urgent task of the Church is to give hope to these modern slaves. In the villages of the Indus Delta, catechists like Veero Akhiani “go to the margins”, as Pope Francis put it. Akhiani regularly visits families in their villages, teaches the children, holds devotions and prays with the people. “When the flood came, all the houses were destroyed and the villagers had to take refuge on the concrete walls of the canals,” Akhani says. “We provided them with food and medicine.” But the most important gift, says Bishop Shukardin, is education. “Those who go to school can then find jobs in the cities,” he explains. “So at least the children can escape the vicious cycle of poverty.” This is why school education is the priority pastoral task in the villages, he says. Classes are often held in the open air, because a school can only be built if the landowner permits it. “Many of the big landowners see education as a threat to their livelihood and do not allow a school to be built,” says Bishop Shukardin.
In a small unnamed village south of Gharo, a generous landowner approved the construction of a school. He specified the exact length and width of the draughty wooden shack, so that 70 children must cram into 50 square metres during school hours, even though the building is surrounded by nothing but wasteland for kilometres. They sit on plastic stools on the bare floor; the wind whistles through the cracks; a heavy rain would wash the hut away. There is no electricity in the village, it is pitch dark at night. The light is provided by the Church, which pays the teacher here and has installed simple solar lamps. It is only thanks to the flood relief financed by the charity ACN that the families in this village are not undernourished and can be provided with medical care. Today, people from all over the area have gathered to thank ACN for this. Representing many, Yousaf and his wife Haniya step forward with their seven children. “We have worked hard but achieved nothing,” Yousaf says in a quiet voice. He looks down at the ground and swallows. Haniya looks at him lovingly. Yousaf hesitates, his gaze moving to his children. The youngest is five, the oldest 12 years old. Then the father looks up, and his voice becomes firmer. “But we have food, and one day our children will be better off than we are. Thanks to the school, thanks to the teachers, thanks to you. You are the angels in our life.”
Bishop Samson Shukardin is aware that teachers roving from village to village in what are at best improvised school buildings can only be a stopgap solution. Therefore he has asked ACN for aid in giving children access to education.
In concrete terms, the Diocese of Hyderabad is building Catholic boarding schools for this purpose, for example, in Tando Allahyar. The name of the place means “the city blessed by God”, and anyone who visits its boarding school senses the truth of it. Children’s bright eyes sparkle with the future; the girls perform a traditional dance, and the boys show off their English skills. Tarja is seven years old, a polite, somewhat shy girl. What does she want to be when she grows up? “I want to be a fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force,” she says. Bishop Shukardin smiles. “We Christians love our country, but we are only a small minority of some two percent of the population. That’s why it would be good if more Christians had important posts in the army, police and administration.” Tarja nods. She will do her best.
Whether that will be enough, however, is not certain. “Inflation in the country is very high; food prices have doubled within a year,” Bishop Shukardin reports. “The children’s parents can hardly ever afford the school fees – they rely on scholarships.”
To enable the boarding school in Tando Allahyar to continue in these circumstances as one of the most promising projects of the Hyderabad Diocese, ACN assists with the maintenance of the buildings and with new construction. For example, a new residential wing for more students was built in 2023. But the demand from Christian families remains high. That is why the aid of human angels will continue to be needed in future to help the children of Sindh province turn their backs on slavery and make a living as mature adults in the cities.