LAHORE - There was a time when there was no problem of security. I remember prior to Christmas we held peace march from Nasir Bagh (called Gol Bagh at that time) to Faisal Chowk. The Catholics used to stage a religious procession with three wise men sitting on camels from St Anthony Church on Empress Road to Sacred Heart Cathedral on Cecil Chaudhry Road (Lawrence Road). There used to be so many melas and fun fairs. Due to security problems all the outdoor activities have ended.

Bishop of Lahore Rt Rev Irfan Jamil went down the memory lane while talking to The Nation in an interview at his office. He was wearing purple coloured cassock with a large Bishop’s cross in the neck. The soft spoken bishop explained in detail how the Christmas celebrations have changed over the years.

“My early years of life were spent in a village. We moved to Lahore in 1961. There were a lot of celebrations and a mix conglobation of Christens and other communities. As a child it was always good to have presents and going to church. Our family became member of Saint Andrews Church. The Sunday school for children was always very interesting and enjoyable. There were different kinds of programmes like Bible reading contests and speech contests. I participated in almost every programme.

“In villages people will stay up till late singing Punjabi Christmas carol services. People would cycle around in groups singing carols. Here in cities too there are choir parties going from house to house singing Christmas carols.

“With the passage of time, the meaning of Christmas has changed. I think all over the world now we find the Christmas has become more commercial. Sometimes it looks like that people are celebrating Christmas without Christ.

“Christmas is also past, present and future. According to Christian belief, past means Christ has already come, presents means he still comes into the heart of people and future means he is going to come. Christmas is reconciliation. Reconciliation means bringing the hearts closer. Jesus came as a hope for all mankind,” the bishop said while explaining the real spirit of Christmas.

Bishop Irfan also cleared a misconception that perhaps Christianity arrived in south Asia with the British. “It is interesting that Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism Christianity all started from this part of the world. We thank God that our roots are not in the west but they are in the East.

“It was in first and second century that Christ’s disciple Thomas came to this region. The historians verify this fact in books and the research on the subject. Thomas came to Taxilla. He was a carpenter and used to make a lot of things for the palaces.

“Then he went to Sindh and later to Nagpur. There are still a lot of churches named after him at Nagpur. Christianity rooted in the East. We are very much part of this soil,” he said.

Christian community like other minority communities is facing a lot of problems. Some of them for example suffered when the incident of terrorism took place in Youhanabad. It came to the fore that majority of youth there are drop outs from schools and are unemployed. The bishop said it was very sad and there is need to change the situation.

“I nobly say we don’t have to give proof that we are Pakistanis. We enjoy same benefits and we have same ID cards. Same misunderstanding arises when people think all the people in Western world are Christians. It is not true.

“We need to understand that in Pakistan we all come from different backgrounds and we find different class division in our society.  “It is a sad thing Christian community has produced best educational institutions and taught others. Not everybody in our community is out of reach of education.

On a query about the Christian educational institutions that have not been given back to the community like Murray College, Sialkot and Gordon College, Rawalpindi the bishop said there has not been much progress. “I studied at Rang Mahal School, which too was nationalized. All the formalities are complete and we hope that it will soon be handed back to us. Other institutions are still to be negotiated with the government. The problems are from both sides,” he said.

On a question about the Christians like other minorities especially Parsis going abroad for good, the bishop was of the view that it is anybody’s right to decide where he wants to live. “We have a beautiful country. People go from here in search of greener pastures. But they have to work hard there. If a doctor or teacher goes there he has to study there to some years. Yes the toll of the brain drain is heavy. But we have to plan accordingly and move on.

“How it can be stopped? We need to correct social system. There are many people who have professional degrees but are not getting jobs according to them. They want to leave Pakistan and try their luck somewhere,” Bishop Irfan said.

Responding to another question he said that clergy of established churches in Pakistan are all very well educated. “In a Catholic Church it takes 11 years of religious education after formal education to become a priest. In the Church of Pakistan (Protestant churches) the person who wants to become priest has to be a graduate. Then he has to have three years of education in seminary (one is at Karachi and the other is at Gujranwala). He will also have to learn Hebrew or Latin. After that he has to work in the field for some years before he becomes a priest,” the bishop briefed.

Explaining the work of Lahore diocese which he heads he said it is divided into eight districts. Lahore is one district and has senior pastor as in-charge, who is called District Superintendent. Then we have 12 pastors covering whole Lahore area. Other districts included in the diocese are Pattoki, Okara district, Clarkabad, Youhanabad, Narowal Rawalpindi and Islamabad area. Murree is the last area in diocese. Before partition Lahore diocese, which was established in 1887, was biggest as it stretched across northern Indian to Kolkata. We have 26 schools and five hostels. 15,000 students are studying in these schools of which 33 percent are Christians,” bishop explained.