Pakistani Christians

Will rebranding Christians make their lives any easier in Pakistan?

By Azam Gill

Published in the Express Tribune, a New York Times affiliate


Pakistan’s Christians will now be respectably called ‘Masihi.’ Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) has issued orders regarding use of Masihi for Christians instead of Esaayi, in the column for Religion.”

Pakistani Christians had been seeking rebranding for quite some time.

“The Urdu ‘Isai’ (derived from ‘Esa’, the Arabic word for ‘Jesus’ used in the Qur’an) now carries strong overtones (of) ‘unclean’ demeaning occupations. This use of language feeds the narrative which makes Christians feel like second-class citizens in today’s society.  On October 8, 2015 in Lahore, more than 500 Muslim students took an oath that they would not call Christians ‘Esaayi,’ but would use the word ‘Masihi’ themselves.”

These noble gestural efforts from all concerned are commendable in their own right. But just treating symptoms allows the disease to thrive.

And the disease here is the association of Christians with scavenging sanitary work which gained them the insulting designation of chuhras (C-word).

The real objection of Pakistani Christians to being called Isai is that the word has, over time, become synonymous with the degrading C-word. After all, Isai, referring to Hazrat Isa/Al-Masih, constantly evokes Muslim-Christian commonality which, in these troubled times, should help shield Christians against violence. At the end of the day, when Pakistani Christians are bombed, their Muslim neighbours’ goodwill is of inestimable value.

Yet, even though Pakistani Christians are well aware that Isai puts them in an advantageous position within communal hostility, they are strongly focused on burying the word (insultingly pronounced Ssa’ai in the Punjab), for having become a de facto replacement for the pejorative C-word. So, while the brand name is a variable, the content it projects is invariable and until that content changes, it will vitiate each new brand name.

When the number of Christians, fuelled by circumstances and blatant discriminatory practices, into employment as sanitary workers decreases the word Isai will become as respectable as Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Jew or Parsee. Dedicated educational, vocational and affirmative action programs, spearheaded by Christians but patronised by powerful, wealthy and enlightened Muslims will go a long way in achieving the goal of decreasing the number of Christians employed as scavengers and sanitary workers.

Very few Muslims realise that Christian hymns and hymn singing to musical orchestras in churches and prayer meetings have resulted in generations of musicians and lyricists invisible to their Muslim neighbours, their talent drowned in the open drains outside the hovels of their bastis.

This is a gold mine hidden in plain sight for talent scouts of the entertainment industry under the aegis of Pakistan’s business-savvy Muslim elite.

The United States Civil Rights movement could never have succeeded without the support and participation of enlightened Whites. Christian community leaders should concentrate on lobbying the Muslim leadership to refine and ensure the implementation of educational, vocational and affirmative action.

History might be replete with examples of communal rebranding, but in recent times, renaming of communities resulted in the United States’ exportable semantic cesspit. As Red Indians evolved into American Indians, Original Americans and finally Native Americans, Blacks finally became African-Americans while the Jews stayed Jews and Indian Americans are quite pleased with themselves.

The rebranding succeeded since it offered a cop-out – white America and the successful middle class of the community concerned could mitigate their commitment to changing the situation and toss a crumb as a substitute for positive action.


The Jews never bothered to reinvent themselves, realising that the cause of persecution is not the name but the situational components. The unchanged word Jew has come a long way from the Shakespearean Shylock to a signifier of wealth, power, status, culture and reliability.

Despite their complaints of Islamophobia, no Muslim has asked to be called anything other than a Muslim and would never be fooled by a semantic hand-out!

With minorities suffering direct persecution, it is irresponsible to let the majority community off the hook by asking for superficial concessions. The focus should be on fundamental changes.

Minority leaders should maintain moral pressure to change the situation and constantly remind the majority of how well they are treated when they find themselves in a minority in more enlightened spaces.

Rebranding a deteriorating product offers middle-class Christians and their supporters a cosy cop-out and good short-term press for the politicians involved in this undersized game.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose – By any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2).

“And that which we call a cesspool – By any other name would stink as much – As did the state of Denmark – When foul play spiked its rightful king.”


Ray of hope for Pakistan

Santa comes to Joseph Colony

Short piece, moving pictures

by Ammar Shareef, from

In March 2013, an angry mob of more than three thousand people stormed Joseph Colony – a Lahore locality with an overwhelmingly Christian population – and set more than 100 homes on fire.

Lahore police stood by as the inflamed crowd torched the humble homes, admittedly avoiding clashes. Despite the outrage the incident sparked, the government took little real action. Twenty-one months later, the ghosts of Joseph Colony still haunt the Christians living in Pakistan.

A number of individuals have since sprung into action to try to make up for the senseless violence, and, in however small measures, undo the tragic wrong.

For the second year in a row, an anonymous donor managed the distribution of Christmas gifts to children of the colony’s Christian community. Distributing cricket bats, badminton rackets and colouring books among children is certainly no compensation for what happened in March last year, but it did manage to spread some smiles on the faces of the kids.

To celebrate your biggest festival in a decidedly hostile environment — no child deserves that. And it should not have been this way. We should have put an end to the madness once and for all. We should have undone every single thing that led to that situation to ensure it didn’t occur again.

But we didn’t. And it did occur, again.

And now it seems that all our children stand terrified in the midst of a menace they had nothing to do with.

Explore: Remembering Peshawar: A sombre Christmas for some

As I captured the endearing smiles of these children, I was overwhelmed with conflicting feelings: pure joy and terrible guilt.

The guilt will stay, but for a few, dear moments, let us get into the Christmas spirit and partake in the simple joys of these children.

Merry Christmas!

Ammar Shareef is a photographer based in Lahore. He can be reached at

Diasporic Pakistani Christmas menu

Biryanis and Christmas cakes from Pakistan to Europe;;;

Pakistani Christians have been able to create their own Christmas menu without any conflict with their belief system, combining the best of several worlds. Ladoos, gulab jamans, pala’a and sha’ami kababs had no quarrel with Christmas puddings, roasts and trifles, just as shalwar kameezes, turbans, achkans and suits harmonized with comfort. Christmas trees have always been a minority option.

Pakistani Christians are all converts from Hinduism, Budhism, Islam, Sikhism and Animism. The converts’ pre and post Christian socio-economic parameters continue to overlap the conflicting forces of their pre and post Christian culture.

The outward manifestations of culture can be reduced to the life cycle of birth, marriage, and death, with the addition of the major religious festivals.

Before the creation of Pakistan, these celebrations retained their Hindu bias within a British cultural framework (or vice-versa). After the rebirth of the Indian Christians as Pakistani Christians, being considered a loyal citizen of the Islamic Republic became an imperative of survival. Traces of British or Hindu culture were seen as subversive. Choices were made by families and groups of families, leading to more diversity in cultural practices after partition.

Despite their best efforts, Christians in Pakistan were viewed with a faint whiff of suspicion as a residue of colonialism whose loyalties lay elsewhere. This suspicion formed the moral justification for multi-level and multi-purpose discrimination.

The general feeling among Pakistani Christians was that their efforts at giving to Caesar were lost in a bottomless pit. With the concepts of jus soli and jus sanguin non-existant, they were, in de facto terms, illegal aliens in their ancestral homeland.  They felt they would be better off in a place where they could succeed through merit without having to look over their shoulders.

That “place” was the West, the Mecca of Pakistanis of all faiths. Many Christians came to Europe by first getting work visas for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that provided them with seed money, and then making their way to Europe, an enterprising albeit ironic exit from a lose-lose situation.

In Europe, their identity went unnoticed. Profession of any religion was treated suspiciously, most of all Christianity. Europeans, considered Christians from the former colonies an embarrassment. They were living reminders of a period they were being educated to abhor. And besides, life was busy.

Yacub Masih, General Secretary of the UK Asian Christian Fellowship in his speech to the House of Lords on 4th February 2005 said: “When I came to this country 30 years ago I was very happy thinking that I am going to a Christian country but I was disappointed … people in this country have no interest in faith … They only know about Santa Claus and Cadbury Easter eggs … .”

Either ways, the Pakistani Christians in Europe quickly lost their romanticism, and then got down to doing what South Asians are jolly good at — working hard, outpacing rivals, and succeeding in the best of their warrior traditions. Denied access to opportunities in their homeland, they found themselves in a society that just let them get on with it. If they wanted to work longer hours, save, and send their children to the schools that offered them a better opportunity, so be it.

Following September 11, and the July 7, 2005 bombings in the UK, the identity of Pakistani Christians, subsumed within Asians of other faiths and agenda, is viewed with as much suspicion as other brown skins.

So that is why, ensconced in their unique mental space, the Pakistani Christian Christmas menu remains largely unchanged. Even a turkey is properly spiced up, pulao or biryani are a must and ladoos and gulab jamuns compete for table space with mince pies or French bûches.

There is, of course, a tree and there are wrapped up gifts but Pakistani Christians wish each other Happiness rather than Merriment!