Karachi’s Christians keep the faith with super-size church

Pakistan’s small Christian community thought big when constructing its latest church – a domed, three-storey building that towers over the sprawling slum it serves and is the largest in the violent, Muslim country.

St Peter’s of Karachi, which opened its doors this month and can fit around 5,000 people, is a sign of the resilience of a faith that has long suffered from state discrimination and attacks by extremists allied with al-Qaeda and the Taleban.

The church took 11 months to build and cost £2.4 million, raised from local donations and from Roman Catholics around the world. It was built on the site of a smaller church in Azam Basti district, a jumble of lanes and simple brick houses that is home to around 15,000 Christians.

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“There were so many people here it was not possible for us to accommodate them on Sundays. Some were sitting at the back, some in the corner, some on the terrace,” said Father Saleh Diego. “Now we can pray together, all 5,000 people, worship the Lord and really share and strengthen our faith.”

Pakistani towns and cities are dotted with striking churches dating back to the 19th century, when the sub-continent was part of the British empire. Newer churches do get built, especially by protestant and evangelical groups, but are smaller, single-room affairs.

In some predominantly Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Indonesia, the construction of new churches can trigger tensions and even violence, but those built in Pakistan normally sit in poor Christian areas such as Azam Basti, so they rarely spark protests. Those few that are built in Muslim or commercial areas can expect some problems, said a Western missionary whose church is about to begin construction of a school and church complex in Punjab province.

“We had some opposition at the start,” said the man, who has lived legally and openly on a missionary visa in Pakistan for many years, but declined to give his name for security reasons. “If we put up a big cross, and we called it a seminary, then we would expect that the locals would give us some problems. We will do it slowly.”

Christians are often discriminated against in Muslim countries, but in Pakistan they face unique problems.

Most are the descendants of low-caste, “untouchable” Hindus, who converted to Christianity when the region was under British colonial rule. Today, many still do the same work as their ancestors: street sweeping, domestic service or other menial jobs. They tend to live in ghettos of extreme poverty, often separated from their Muslim neighbours by high walls.

In Pakistan, Christians account for between 3 per cent and 5 per cent of the country’s 180 million people, split approximately equally between Roman Catholics and Protestants.

St Peter’s is roughly the same size as Karachi’s imposing British-era cathedral, St Patrick’s. But it can accommodate many more worshippers because they sit on the floor, not on pews.

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The church is a simple rectangular building, adorned with arches and dozens of Gothic spires.

Dozens of stained-glass windows depict the suffering of Jesus Christ, while the walls inside are painted shiny white with large frescos.