11/10/2005, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Discriminated against Christians at the forefront of Kashmir quake aid

by Qaiser Felix

Our correspondent in Muzafarabad describes the commitment of the small Catholic community to help survivors, as well as the discrimination it suffers every day. The parish priest: "Pray that local Catholics may help more and resolve their own problems".

Muzafarabad (AsiaNews) – The Catholic community in Muzafarabad and Abottabad "responded as soon as it grasped the extent of the damage provoked by the earthquake on 8 October". The community equipped trucks to ferry the sick and distributed food and blankets, while sisters and priests are at work in camp hospitals in temporary settlements.

Usually, in Muzafarabad, Catholics are permitted neither to build churches, nor to buy houses, nor to bury their dead in the common cemetery; to do so, they must go to Punjab province.

Fr Inayat Patras, parish priest of the Catholic Church of Abottabad, told AsiaNews his community "was frightened when we heard about the large-scale devastation of Muzafarabad; I sent my catechists with some other people there on the same evening so we could have first-hand information about the needs, because telephone lines were down. The following evening they came back and told me the earthquake had destroyed everything, that people were homeless and spending the night in the open air, even those with severe injuries.

"Most Christians in Muzafarabad work in small construction or transport companies and they told me they could have the use of a truck, but they had no fuel. We quickly got hold of 60 litres of fuel and sent them to Abottabad. They gathered the injured in the truck and ferried them to the medical complex in the Ayub tent settlement, where they received first aid. Later, we brought them to the parish, where we hosted and looked after them. Thank God, they are better now and they have been able to return to Muzafarabad, because the city Corporation has called them to continue working. However they are living in tents.

"We loaded them with food, warm clothing, blankets and tents and we are trying to help them meet all their needs, even from afar. I want to thank especially Mgr Joseph Coutts, bishop of Faisalabad and national director of Caritas for this, because he has helped us generously.

"Two French scouts came here with food and blankets and now they are distributing them and helping in what needs to be done. Fr Roy, an English priest who runs a programme for drug addicts in Peshawar diocese is now working with 12 parishioners at the medical complex in Ayub settlement.  Sr Sylvia, an American from the Congregation of the Medical Mission Sisters, has been working there with two co-sisters since 1 November.

Sr Sylvia told AsiaNews the nuns will continue offering their service to help the wounded "until they need us. Many other nuns have also been helping out here, because Pakistani women do not allow male doctors to treat them and they deal with us, women and religious, much more willingly".

However, Fr Patras said Christians in Muzafarabad "have problems". "We do not have a church and we cannot buy houses. We cannot bury our dead here because people don't want this. The government has promised to give us land for a church, and we are waiting".

The government gave its word only after tragedy struck. "A small girl died in the city in the last week of July and her parents had to hire a truck to bury her in a village of Punjab province; they were not allowed to do so here. There were 12 relatives of the deceased girl in the truck, which fell into a river due to a landslide. Six relatives died in the accident, two drowned and the rest were injured."

The last words of the parish priest were: "Pray for us faithful here that we may be able to help the earthquake survivors still more and that our own problems may be resolved".

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