By Jibran Khan
Such is the fate of hundreds of residents of the France Colony, a walled area of some 600 dwellings, some of them one-room hovels for up to seven people, living in inhuman conditions and poor sanitation. Residents slam the authorities for their lack of concern about their fate and the government for its empty promises. An educational project by the Masihi Foundation could improve things.
Islamabad (AsiaNews) – Forced into a ghetto without basic human rights, Pakistani Christians often lack drinking water and decent sanitation, with up to seven people living in one-room hovels, children included. Many call the France Colony home, an area in central Islamabad that is isolated from the rest of the city by a wall. Despite complaints, nothing has changed. Now, there is a glimmer of hope after the Masihi Foundation set up a school for local children, providing them with books, bags and uniforms free of charge, a project activists hope to bring to the rest of the country.
With 1.6 per cent of the population and some 3 million believers, Pakistan’s Christian minority is the country’s second largest religious minority after Hindus. For a long time, it has been the victim of marginalisation and violence, made worse by the progressive Islamisation of the country launched by General Zia-ul-Haq in the mid-1980s.
Most Christians are rural migrants. When they arrive in the cities, they are forced to live in so-called colonies, virtual ghettoes, and take humble jobs as cleaners and sanitation workers with a status comparable to that of India’s untouchables.
The France Colony (pictured) is in the heart of Pakistan’s Federal Capital of Islamabad. It gets its name from the fact that the old French Embassy was located in the area. It has 600 dwellings, surrounded by a wall. Access is provided by one main entrance, plus three or four rarely used openings, on the other side of the compound.
Muhammad Saddique, a local Muslim, said that the wall was built after local “rich and noble Muslim families” called on city officials to protect them from the eyesore of the ‘Christian ghetto. However, this has forced Christians to use only the main gate.
Yaqoob Masih, a France Colony resident, blames the Capital Development Authority (CDA) for depriving “us of our basic rights,” such as “the right to clean drinking water” and “hygienic conditions”.
The irony is that “90 per cent per cent of the population in the France Colony works as cleaners for CDA and keeps the capital clean. Yet, their own colony has unhygienic conditions.”
The colony residents live in overcrowded spaces with no access to basic facilities,” Shahid Masih, another resident, said. “Residents have not been given ownership rights despite repeated promises by the federal government. I live in one room with a family of seven”.
Sheeba Sadiq also lives in France Colony. “Each incoming government makes populist claims about rights regularisations.” But “in the second decade of the 21st century, we are still living in subhuman conditions.”
Yet, amid the degradation, one initiative has brought some hope for a better life to the Christians of France Colony.
Earlier this year, the Masihi Foundation, a Pakistan humanitarian organisation, set up its own school in the area, providing free English medium quality education to the residents of France Colony.
It is the first programme of its kind for a Christian community living in the capital. Students get free books, bags, uniforms and other educational material.
Activists are hoping to replicate the initiative in other parts of the country.
“I am grateful to the Foundation for thinking about us,” colony resident Abid Masih said. “I want my children educated so that they can live a better life.”