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Racism persists in many forms, caste stigma runs deep among Pak Christians, Muslims

Saldanha with Canadian community of Precious Blood Church in Canada
Lawrence John Saldanha, an 84 year old retired archbishop from Pakistan, originally from Mangalore, currently living in Canada helping persecuted Pakistani Christians who seek asylum in Canada, in an email alert to some of his community colleagues has expressed concern over casteism among Christians and Muslims in Pakistan. Appointed Archbishop of Lahore by Pope John Paul II in 2001, his family was among those who had opted to remain in Pakistan after Partition.
This is what he says in the email alert, which he signed as “Lawrence J Saldanha, Archbishop Emeritus of Lahore, Pakistan, Toronto, Canada” titled “Caste bias persists in Pakistan”:
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I would like to relate my own experiences about the discussion on the caste system. I was born by accident in Mangalore to my parents, Lawrence and Lillian Saldanha, but I spent much of my life in Lahore, Punjab in what is now Pakistan.
In my childhood days in Lahore, caste was not a big deal. We led a privileged life as part the ruling class of British India. We had a Westernised education and egalitarian outlook. Our parents taught us to accept and respect every human person and be kind to the poor.
But then came Partition in 1947 and we opted to remain in Pakistan. It was then that the identity of Christians in Pakistan became a burning issue. Islam became all-important. Non-Muslims were considered outsiders.
Although Islam does not adhere to a rigid caste system yet there exists a division of upper and lower castes. Those who claim to belong to the clan of the Prophet Muhammad like the Qureishis or the Sayyids are considered to be upper class. Indeed, Indian Muslims have their own special caste system inherited from Hinduism. It is subconscious but real. And it has become became more pronounced in recent years.
The plight of the indigenous Punjabi Christians became all the more problematic. They are the future of the Catholic Church. They belong to the poor, working class. Ministering to them as a young priest, I soon realized that the caste stigma runs deep, especially in matters of eating and drinking from the same dishes. Young Christians may not be hired as waiters or cooks but as cleaners and domestic maids. Even the profession of nurses, which used to be dominated by Christians fifty years ago, now finds itself excluding Christians.
They are also excluded because of their Christian faith and may be branded as “Kafirs” or even worse “blasphemers”.
So the prejudice of being low caste and unclean is something that Christians have to deal with throughout their lives. That is the reason that many would like to migrate to other countries where there is no caste distinction and each person is accepted as a normal and equal human being.
Dark complexion is also a sign of low caste and a reason for exclusion. Children are taught at an early age to prize a light complexion. They are teased and taunted by their peers. They suffer from an inferiority complex.
There is a big market for creams that claim to lighten the skin tone.
It is a fact that systemic racism is a deep problem that is just beginning to surface in the USA because of the many incidents of violence to African Americans in the last few years. The emerging movement of “Black Lives Matter” has made this a burning issue. But it is a matter of concern and surprise that the rampant caste system of India and Pakistan is not denounced for what it is: systemic racism. Although the great Mahatma Gandhi drew attention to the miserable conditions of the Harijans, yet racism still persists in many forms today.
Let us make a determined effort to be conscious of these wrongful attitudes and work to create a society based on love, respect and dignity of every human being as the “imago Dei”, the image of God!

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