Low literacy levels among Christians and weakened church institutions blamed on government-run schools
Father Bonnie Mendes (third from right) launches the CSJ research with Church of Pakistan Bishop Irfan Jamil of Lahore. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)
New research has blamed nationalization of Pakistan’s private schools for low literacy levels among the Christian community, weakened church institutions and for creating fear among them.
Published by the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), an advocacy group for minorities, a report titled “Lessons from the Nationalization of Education in 1972” claims 118 missionary institutions remained nationalized by June 2020. The study confirmed that among these schools in Punjab and Sindh only 50 percent had been denationalized as of November 2019.
“Three out of five colleges nationalized were still under government control. Twenty-five percent of the Catholic Church’s schools were yet to be denationalized. All schools belonging to the Salvation Army and Methodist Church were still under government control,” the report stated.
“Some of the schools were sharing the same compounds as churches, hence boundary walls had to be built to separate the two at the expense of the churches. This also meant adopting inconvenient logistical arrangements.”
Father Bonnie Mendes, former executive secretary of the Catholic bishops’ National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), and Church of Pakistan Bishop Irfan Jamil of Lahore launched the research on Aug. 15 at a hotel in Lahore.
The findings explored fallout from 1972 when the government seized control of all schools, colleges and hospitals held by Christians in the country under President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s policy of nationalization.
In 2004, President Pervez Musharraf ordered the conditional privatization of minority educational institutions. As a result, 59 institutions were returned to churches.
Christian missionaries were the pioneers of modern education in northern South Asia. While the American Presbyterians established English medium schools, the Anglicans and the Catholics organized education at primary and secondary level. The Presbyterians and Anglicans established colleges in the region.
The CSJ dedicated the study to three late bishops including Bishop Anthony Lobo of Islamabad–Rawalpindi Diocese, who received the Presidential Pride of Performance Award in 1990 for his services to the cause of literature and education. Similarly, Bishop Patras Yusaf of Multan opened many schools and hostels in South Punjab, while Bishop Inayat Masih, the founder moderator of the Church of Pakistan, led one of the foremost protests in Lahore against nationalization.
Most Christian parents prefer church-run schools, the only educational institutes that offer catechism classes in the Islamic republic. Muslims also admire their high-quality education and discipline. Many top leaders in politics, the bureaucracy, the armed forces and civil society studied at these institutions.
Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children with an estimated 22.8 million children aged 5-16 not attending school, with high dropout rates at 44 and 40 percent for primary and secondary levels respectively.
“At government-run schools most Christians, especially in the villages, suffered from caste and religious discrimination and thus were deterred from going to school. Pastors had no way to push parents to send their children to school and the cycle of poverty and downtrodden-ness continued, especially since these schools also provided a large number of jobs for Christians, who were discriminated against in the general job market,” stated the CSJ research.
In 2017, grade 9 student Sheron Masih at a government-run school in Burewala, Punjab province, was beaten to death three days after starting his new school because he drank water from a cup meant for Muslim students, his family says.
Yaqoob Khan Bangash, a Muslim historian who authored the foreword to the study, blames nationalization for breaking the interreligious connection.
“Most churches in Pakistan were ill-equipped to deal with these changed conditions and largely failed to counter them effectively, leading to further problems for the Christian community,” he said.
“Instances of prejudice, discrimination and even attacks increased as members of the majority community were raised without any meaningful interaction with minority communities, and so they became easy, and largely unknown, targets of bigotry and intolerance. On the side of the Christians too, this lack of interaction pushed them further into their own ghettoed existence and created many misconceptions about the majority community.”
The CSJ urged church organizations and denominations dealing with education to proactively engage with government departments, meet procedural requirements including audit and transparency requirements, train and appoint human resources, inculcate professionalism and democratic running of the institution, involve minority politicians and community leaders to guard the educational institutions against any interference, unfair and illegal practices.
Father Mendes noted the migration of educated Christians as another challenge. “We ran English medium schools for the elite; few minority families were educated. Many could not afford high fees. The professionals left for abroad, leaving us where we are. The foreign missionaries were also discouraged and their missionary presence was reduced to an insignificant number,” he said.
Peter Jacob, the Catholic director of the CSJ, aims to share this research publication with both provincial and federal education departments and textbook boards. Expressing his concerns about recent legislative and administrative steps in Punjab in particular, he said that “we are apprehensive that the new education policy measure will aggravate the ongoing crisis.”
In March, the government announced it was finalizing the draft uniform syllabus for grades 1 to 5, thus completing the first phase of the implementation of the single national curriculum. The new plan involves reading the entire Quran with translation.
It also stipulates that every school and college must employ a certified Hafiz (a person who has memorized the Quran) and a Qari (a Quran reciter) to teach these subjects. The new policy will ensure jobs for 6,000 madrasa graduates, analysts say.