Father Boniface “Bonnie” Mendes lives and works in the Diocese of Faisalabad in the eastern province of Punjab, Pakistan. Born and bred in Karachi, the 80-year-old priest is former executive secretary of the Pakistani bishops’ National Commission for Justice and Peace and former head of CARITAS Asia. The following is an interview with Fr. Mendes, conducted via email by Gerry Lee, Director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, just days after the Dec. 17 suicide bombing attack on a church in Quetta in which nine people were killed and 57 injured. It was published in the January-February 2018 issue of NewsNotes.
Q: How have the Christians in Pakistan responded to the extremist violence, especially the church bombing?
Fr. Mendes: As Christians we are people of hope. These incidents only strengthen us to believe that Jesus is with us and will bless the Pakistani Church even more. In the midst of such tragedies we are firm in our faith. All the Christians I know are determined to live Christianity despite the challenges.
An elderly woman from a village said, "Great seeing so many young people in Church, never before were there so many people for the Novena prayers during Advent, from Monday the Chapel in our village is full. My cousins told me on the phone that in their villages the reaction is the same. The danger of being attacked is there, but people are not afraid. They are coming to Church. What is beautiful is that all of them are in their teens or early twenties, maybe early thirties, but they are young."
Q. What is the cause of the violence?
Fr. Mendes: It is hard to identify any one cause of violence, but in general, people put the blame on the United States and its allies. It is a long history. Pakistanis were singled out to go Afghanistan and drive out the Russians but once the Pakistanis and their friends succeeded , the U.S. and its allies forgot about us. All the sweet promises were over. We were left to struggle on our own.
Now the United States has decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. There is a strong sentiment here against that decision. But Trump and his government has forgotten the sacrifices Pakistan has made in the war against terror. We lost thousands and thousands of lives after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan within a month of 9/11. Who has paid the price? People from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bush proudly said after the attack on Afghanistan that there is no resistance, after he bombed and bombed Afghanistan. Refugees poured into Pakistan. We played host to millions. When the refugees were here and the Zia government was all for Islam, seeds of intolerance were planted. People who hated the U.S. planted the seeds of violence in our country and we are still paying the price.
Q. Where is your hope?
Fr. Mendes: Packed Churches are a sign of hope, for sure. Different places had candle light services during Advent to remember the martyrs of Quetta.
Another sign is nobody is talking of denomination. All Christians are flocking together. The questions of denomination and giving the Eucharist only to Catholics are something for the Canonical and Liturgical people. The people in the street know that we are all Christians.
And another sign of hope is enlightened moderate Muslims are sympathizing with Christians. Some do not dare to speak out in case they are singled out for attack by some extremists, but in private conversation, they open up and sympathize with us.
Q. What are the challenges for the Church?
Fr. Mendes: The government is tightening security. We have to pay for CCTV cameras for our institutions; we have to employ armed guards; we have to raise the boundary wall of each building to ten feet and on top of that we have to put razor sharp wires. This is expensive and we do not how to pay for it.
We have other challenges. Christians want priests in every Church for Mass. Rules say we are allowed to offer only three Masses a day but people expect Masses in villages. In each parish we have about 50 to 100 villages. We normally have at most 2 priests in a parish. After the attack, the people want Masses in the day and at night. We have midnight services on Christmas despite all the threats.
We are not armed and we are Church-going. Some youth only think of arms. The government wants our youth to be trained in shooting. Church guards have to get a license and own a gun. These are challenges for us. Expenses aside, we are against guns and we are being forced by the government to have armed guards at our churches. We cannot say no.
Photo: Fr. Bonnie Mendes courtesy of https://www.ucanews.com/news/fabc-plenary-an-opportunity-to-reignite-vit...