06/12/2012, 00.00

Cecil Chaudhry: heroic Christian witness among Pakistani Muslims

Shafique Khokhar
Two months after his death, the Christian community remembers the high-ranking Air Force officer and Catholic leader. Hundreds or people attended the memorial service, including Muslims. Human rights activist remembers his capacity to stand up to discrimination. For Fr Mendes, he was an honest family man. For a young Pakistani woman, he was "My hero and ideal."

Lahore (AsiaNews) - Two months after the death of Cecil Chaudhry, the Christian community paid tribute once more to the Pakistan Air Force pilot and national hero who promoted the ideal of "one nation, one people". A Catholic and the activist for human and civil rights, he died on 13 April after a long illness. Thousands of people took part in the funeral. On Saturday, at least 500 people, both Christians and Muslims, gathered at Lahore's Sacred Heart Cathedral for a memorial service. Bishops, priests, nuns, human rights activists and ordinary citizens attended the ceremony; poems were read, special prayers were recited; speeches were made in his memory. Mgr Joseph Coutts, archbishop of Karachi, led the Eucharistic celebration at the end.

Born in Dalwal (Punjab) on 27 August 1941 into a Catholic family, Cecil Chaudhry had "deep faith" in Christ. In 1958, he joined the Pakistan Air Force academy. In his military career, he took part in the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971 during which he participated in high-risk operations, earning two medals of valour.

He retired from active duty in 1986 with the rank of colonel. As a non-Muslim, he could never occupy the post of Chief of the Armed Forces, but he did play a key role in the process of reconciliation between India and Pakistan. He also began to fight for human rights and youth education, especially for minorities.

Speaking about the religious constraints on his career in the military, the one institution that retains the "real" power in the country, the director of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) I.A. Rehman said, "He did not allow discrimination to stop him work for the nation." Instead, he turned his attention to "education and human rights".

"Cecil could have become a multi millionaire [. . .] but instead he thought of his nation," said Fr Bonnie Mendes. The Faisalabad priest who is also regional coordinator for Caritas Asia was referring here to the honesty and integrity Chaudhry showed during negotiations with France over the purchase of fighter planes. "Cecil did not want material wealth, but the richness that comes from love and family," he explained. In fact, on several occasions, he urged his fellow citizens to build a Pakistan that was "one people, one nation."

Shalom Bashrat, a young Christian from Lahore who attended the celebration, said that he has been inspired by Chaudry's "struggle for the rights of the oppressed." Speaking to AsiaNews, he said that Chaudhry "was a true model for young Pakistani Christians," because he represented a "living witness of how one can be a Christian in a Muslim society."

On many occasions, he urged "Christian families to educate their children," and provided scholarships to deserving students from poor families. In veiled criticism, Shalom said that Chaudhry was different from today's Christian leaders who are too interested "in their own interests" rather than the common good.

Nazia Shaheed, a young Christian woman, also took part in the memorial service. For her, Chaudhry was "My hero and ideal". He was "not only a defender of Pakistan but also a great defender of human rights and a promoter of peace."

In the 1990s, Cecil Chaudhry became the secretary of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), a group founded in 1985 by Shahbaz Bhatti.

In the last part of his life, he worked with the minister assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists, devoting himself to school reforms for disabled children.

Chaudhry was also an active supporter of the National Commission for Justice and Peace and was involved for 14 years in the campaign that led to the re-establishment of universal suffrage in 2002.

(Joseph Laldin contributed to this article)

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