Islamabad (AsiaNews) - Pakistani Christians today celebrate Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, with prayers and fasting. Masses and religious services are being held in all of the country's churches with a special thought for peace in a nation that is still the scene of attacks against the civilian population, persecution of minorities and violence between the military and the Taliban.
The Diocese of Lahore and Rawalpindi has issued a special message of peace and harmony for the faithful and the whole community, noting with particular force the true meaning of the traditional event: fasting, privation, abandonment of worldly desires and the sufferings Jesus endured for 40 days in the desert, when confronted with the devil's temptations.
Parishes renew the ritual of the ashes, asking the community to "do more good" and not dwell on the problems and difficulties of daily life.
On this day, every church opens its doors to the faithful. Many services held in conjunction with the first day of fasting and prayer in preparation for Easter.
For Fr Arshad John, a priest in Lahore, this is "a favourable time to show humility and refrain from the temptations of the world". Hence, the faithful should "give thanks to the Lord, our God," and "fast for Him rather than please someone around us. Fasting for the Lord and doing His will: these must be our priority." The faithful, he noted, should "pray for peace in the country" at this time of Lent.
"In many parts of Pakistan, Christians are persecuted because of their faith," said Fr Waris Sohatra, from Sialkot, in the Diocese of Punjab.
In particular, the central part of Punjab province has seen many bloody events involving minority Christians.
"During Lent, let us pray for persecuted Christians and the current situation of the country," Fr Sohatra added. "Let us start the Lenten season by submitting to the will of the Lord, observing the ritual of Ash Wednesday."
"Lent is a time of sacrifice and detachment from the temptations and deeds the world said," Fr Jamshed Gill, an activist in Hyderabad, the second most populous city in the province of Sindh.
"The faithful should fast and put their trust in God's will with regard to their lives," he added. "Lent is a time to turn to the Lord for forgiveness, showing him one's compassion to others." Thus, "Let ask the faithful to pray for Pakistan, to pray for peace and to pray for all Christians."
With a population of more than 180 million people (97 per cent Muslim), Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, the second largest Muslim nation after Indonesia.
About 80 per cent of Muslims are Sunni, whilst Shias are 20 per cent. Hindus are 1.85 per cent, followed by Christians (1.6 per cent) and Sikhs (0.04 per cent).
Violence against ethnic and religious minorities is commonplace across the country, with Shia Muslims and Christians as the main target, with things getting worse.
Dozens incidents of violence have occurred in recent years, against individuals or entire communities, like in Gojra in 2009 or Joseph Colony in Lahore in March 2013,or against single individuals (Asia Bibi, Rimsha Masih and Robert Fanish Masih, a young man who died in jail), often perpetrated under the pretext of the country's blasphemy laws.