“Pope John Paul II just finished his Mass speech and was going to take a round along with the then Pakistan’s military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq to wave his hand to his devotees when an explosive device went off outside the national cricket stadium” recalls Michael Javaid, a Pakistani lawmaker who, at 61, is visiting Philadelphia to see Pope Francis during the World Meeting of Families Congress.
Then 27, Javaid was accompanying nearly 800 students of the St. Michael School to see the pope, all with “Vatican and Pakistani flags in hands.”
Reports from the time said the pope was apparently unaware of the explosoin. But American vice consul Tim Kane was in the area, and took off his shirt to cover one of the victims.
The pope had arrived at the stadium, normally used for cricket matches, to perform a 90-minute mass.
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After that, he was supposed to meet Pakistan’s president, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, before heading to the Philippines, Guam and Japan.
Though there were few causalities, the blast left a devastating impact on the lives of Pakistan’s Catholics, recalls Javaid. Unlike Javaid, most have never had another opportunity to see the pope.
Javaid and his family of five are among the two dozen families from Karachi in Philadelphia. Several people from Modesto, Oakdale, Merced and other Northern San Joaquin Valley were expected to be among the 2.5 million Catholics in Philadelphia through Thursday. The papal visit will conclude in New York on Sept. 27.
That sounds like a lot, but the pope drew 6 million people in Manila and 3 million in Rio. Almost 8,000 journalists were expected to cover the event.
“We are thankful to America to help us see the Catholic pope after 34 long years,” said Dr. James Watt, another Karachi visitor to Philadelphia. He said it is difficult for Pakistani Catholics to see the pope elsewhere for many reasons.
“The pope can’t come to Pakistan due to the volatile security situation here. It’s hard to get the visa of European countries, and Pakistan doesn’t allow its nationals to visit Israel,” he said.
But America “generously” issued visas to Pakistani Christians, Watt said, so they could attend an important event and see the pope.
Javaid, who served in the provincial assembly of southern Sindh for four terms, says more than 8 million Christians live in Pakistan, of which 1 million, a vast majority, are Catholic. The rest are spread among 72 other Christian denominations, he said.
“We are happy, we are going to see what over 1 million Catholic fellows of ours are unable to do and what we haven’t seen for the last 34 years,” said Arshia Urooj, the older daughter of Javaid and a final-year student at Karachi’s Sir Syed Medical and Engineering University.
Seeing the pope is not the only thing denied to Pakistani Christians. The birthplace of Jesus is in Israel, which denies entry to visitors from most Muslim nations even if they are Christian.
Pakistan is one of the few countries that hasn’t recognized Israel. and its passport carries a clear note: “Reading this passport is valid for all countries except Israel.” That is something Javaid would like to see changed.
“We are proud of being Pakistanis, and our love of this land should be rewarded by letting us go to the places which are held with high esteem in our faith,” he said.
While many Hindus have left Pakistan due to alleged forcible conversions and prosecution in the Pakistani province of Sindh, very few Christians have left the country for Europe or America despite threats to their lives from Islamic militants.
Several Pakistani Christian churches have been bombed, including two big ones in Peshawar and Lahore.
Despite the threat from a small number of extremists, “we are treated well by the majority of our fellow Pakistanis,” said Javaid. “Pakistan is our home and all we want it to facilitate us to visit our holy places.”
Naimat Khan is a Karachi-based journalist who spent most of August in Modesto as a visiting journalist. Email: undisclosedtruth@ gmail.com; or Twitter @Nkmalazai