Merry Christmas from Pakistan

"It is a dark Christmas for us". I was visiting a Christian slum of Islamabad when an old man said this sentence. Christians are around 4% of Islamabad's population but constitute the lowest rung of Pakistani society. Most of them are sanitary workers and employed by the federal government but unlike other employees; they are not given any government residences.

While Islamabad is dominated by government-owned housing projects for federal employees, these slums have appeared in between the green spaces of these residential estates. These people, most of them Christians and sanitary workers, have not been employed in the full government contract. They do not receive any retirement benefits nor do they have any prospects of getting a housing option or even an extra allowance.

A sizable number of Christians in Pakistan were converted from the lowest caste of Hinduism -- the Shudras or Dalits -- during colonial rule. Catholic and Protestant missionaries were allowed to preach but they mostly only succeeded in reaching out to these forsaken people. Most conversions took place in the Punjab region of Pakistan as people thought that they would be able to threw off the shackles of slavery and would lead a good life. It was but a false perception. They continued doing the menial jobs after the conversion and were still considered as untouchables. They were and still are regularly subjected to violence in Punjab and other parts of Pakistan.

There was another group of Christian converts that did not receive this hate. That was mainly because of their skin color and background. While the converts in rural Punjab were dark skinned Dalits, others were from the upper castes of Hindus, Sikhs and also some Muslims. They prospered under the colonial rule and established hundreds of chapels, missionary schools and hospitals; some of them were also commissioned in the officers cadre of the all powerful Pakistani military. These were the people that had the resources to do the groundwork for the social uplift of their poor brethren. But, they did not. A woman told me that the Begums (rich ladies) sit two rows ahead of them during church service as they are afraid of catching any disease.

Despite all the bottlenecks and social stigmatization, a tiny fraction of these Christian Pakistanis have started ascending the social ladder. Their younger lot is trying to break free from the societal pressures and discrimination and have found the perfect way of doing it. Education is playing a key role in social uplift and some of them have been able to get jobs in schools, banks and hospitals as blue collar workers. They still face bullying and taunts from their coworkers but at least have been able to live a relatively better life.

Others, however, are not that fortunate. Centuries of neglect and menial jobs have made them addicts and small time crooks. Substance abuse is common among them and so are wife beatings. Poor quality education and related expenses bar these people from enrolling their children in schools. Some welfare organizations do help them but they always remain strapped for resources.

Christmas is the only time when these people find some time for enjoyment and relaxation. This is also the only time when they have two holidays -- Christmas and the Boxing Day. Otherwise, they have to work during the Muslim holidays of Eid and other festivals.

Shafqat Maseeh, a 40-year old sanitary worker, was setting up a small Christmas tree in his one-room squatter home. The electricity had been cut off so he was planning to light candles on Christmas Eve. He told me that he had mixed feelings during this Christmas. He was happy that his son was enrolled in a school but was also feeling the heat of massive inflation that had curtailed his efforts to prepare an Xmas feast. The biggest threat was that of terrorism. Minorities always remain at the receiving hand in both India and Pakistan and he was afraid that a crazy bomber might strike the congregation. Islamabad Police do provide security during Christmas but it is usually thin as compared to Muslim festivals. More than half of police personnel are already busy in protecting the "high and the mighty ministers" and Shafqat was afraid that a semi-armed sentry would not be able to protect a congregation of hundreds of Christians.

He said that he would be happy in case of safe holidays and was actually praying for that. He was hoping for a "normal Christmas" and wished the readers a "Very Happy Christmas". A real Merry Xmas from Islamabad, Pakistan.