PANDEMIC COVID 19: A MISSION CHALLENGE FOR CHRISTIANS IN PAKISTAN

Pervaiz Sultan ((Dr. Pervaiz Sultan obtained his Ph.D in Mission Studies from Open University UK, through Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. (1989-1997). He is a Professor of Mission and Practical Theologies at St. Thomas’ Theological College: Have taught courses at Master of Divinity level degrees at St. Thomas’ Theological College since 1989. ))

INTRODUCTION
This article looks at COVID -19 in the context of Pakistan with its effects on general public, raising the challenge for Christians with regard to their calling to serve people around and proclaim the gospel of Christ. February 27th 2020 was the day when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Pakistan. Since then, along with the world, Pakistan has faced socio-economic, political and religious challenges at all levels of society. There were some clear warnings from national and international bodies, medical and other fields who raised issues of general awareness regarding the deadly virus for the precautions to take. There were also some technical advices given to the Government and private Institutions (religious and socio-political), and assistance was offered to fight the virus by international bodies like WHO and US-AID to reduce its consequences especially the death toll.
The biblical materials in their theological interpretation by the church and theologians carry clear mission mandate to proclaim the love of God in the midst of natural calamities and show solidarity with those who have been under any sort of pressure, difficulty and frustration. The gospel of Christ speaks to people in religious and secular situations. As we focus on the mission of the Church in this context, the reader may note that Pakistani Christian community is less than two percent of the population with limited resources to address such a large scale problems as COVID-19. Even so, the challenge was taken on board by many Christian individuals and groups at different levels, with tangible initiatives of showing solidarity with those affected by the situation directly or indirectly.
With regard to the direct effects of the deadly virus, poverty rise, loss and insecurity of jobs , frustration caused by lockdowns, loneliness and isolation, fear and stigma of the disease, and other related issues come under discussion. This raised challenge of pastoral care and immediate help as charity for daily food and shelter and long term development plans and in some case the notions of justice for the oppressed and the poor. For Christians, the chances of persecution have been on rise. The foremost difficulty was the risk for the charity workers and pastors to provide pastoral care in groups and to families which is most of the situation in Pakistan. Some of them were affected and died while engaging with people to help them.
The rate of the cases of COVID-19 was slowed down to great extent during summer months in Pakistan. General public in this context topped taking precautionary measures. This resulted in the new cases being reported from the second week of October. The worry is that in the coming winter months with fog and smog around in Punjab especially, there may be a new wave of COVID-19 coming to affect general public. Poor women, children and elderly people are more open to the virus. The working class has no choice but to come out of homes to work on daily wages or as domestic workers. Children commute to schools in school vans which are overcrowded. It is very difficult to observe precautions but still the challenge is there to do so. Following are some highlights of the case of COVID-19 and Christian Mission in and with reference to Pakistan.

SITUATION AND RECOMMENDATIONS BY UNO & WHO
Demography of the COVID-19 for Pakistan

A study by the World Health Organization identified the following:
There were 113,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of 10th June, 2020. Two thousand two hundred people had died by that date with four provincial legislators. Pakistan has densely populated urban and rural conditions with limited medical facilities as the public health system is underdeveloped.
It was also reported that:

“While the poverty rate declined by 40 percent over the last two decades to 24.3% in 2015, the IMF projects a sharp reversal, with up to 40% of Pakistanis living below the poverty line in COVID-19’s viral wake”.

Regarding the school children, it is reported that 42 million children over the last five to six months have been out of school, while 17 million children under five were missing routine vaccinations. An additional 2.45 million people beyond an existing 40 million now suffer food insecurity.
A relief effort was suggested for the early months of the virus, what is needed now is a long term commitment with a visible pragmatism of care and love for those affected by the situation directly or indirectly.

Recommendations by UN & WHO
The UNs’ (Demography of COVID-19 Pakistan) five point strategic steps in this regard were about essential health service, social protection, protecting job, and surge in fiscal and financial stimuli promoting social cohesion and investing in community-led resilience and response systems. This recommendation covers a wide national horizon, still its relevance is there for the churches and Christians in their institutional and pastoral set ups.
World Health Organization issued a document on 7th April 2020 as “Practical Considerations And Recommendations For Religious Leaders And Faith-Based Communities In The Context Of COVID-19”. Its introductory background has two paragraphs relevant to Christian leadership for their mission and pastoral role.

“Religious leaders, faith-based organizations, and faith communities can play a major role in saving lives and reducing illness related to COVID-19. They are a primary source of support, comfort, guidance, and direct health care and social services, for the communities they serve. Religious leaders of faith-based organizations and communities of faith can share health information to protect their own members and wider communities, which may be more likely to be accepted than from other sources. They can provide pastoral and spiritual support during public health emergencies and other health challenges and can advocate for the needs of vulnerable populations.
By sharing clear, evidence-based steps to prevent COVID-19, religious-inspired institutions can promote helpful information, prevent and reduce fear and stigma, provide reassurance to people in their communities, and promote health-saving practices. Religious leaders are integrated into their communities through service and compassionate net-works and are often able to reach the most vulnerable with assistance and health information and identify those most in need. Religious leaders are a critical link in the safety net for vulnerable people within their faith community and wider communities.”

This has direct implications for Christian Churches in Pakistan who have access to the most vulnerable to show their concern both on humanitarian and faith levels. All major concerns of the document quoted above have Christian mission tone and is in the range of mission practices.

RESPONSE TO THE SITUATION
Majority population of Pakistan is adherents of Islam. They have a sense of Haquq al abad, obligation to the humans in need, and sadaqa jaria, charity for the poor and suffering people. So, many of them came up with visible charitable support individually and through large scale charitable organizations countrywide.
Awareness raising programs were sponsored on the media by private and government organizations which had their effect.

Christians’ Response to COVID-19 in Pakistan
As stated above, because of their small number in social sector, Christians in Pakistan take time to come up with practical plans of ministry in such cases. Because of a conservative background, many restrict their involvement to sharing the message rather than action. It happened in this case. Others took time to plan and act deciding the scale of their involvement while saving themselves from the effects of the virus. It was so abrupt that many could not grasp the idea and notion of their role and still others were themselves affected in one way or the other, so they stayed passive.
COVID-19 has been described as God’s judgment on the world, for sinful living by many Christians in the pews and in the pulpits. Biblical passages like Psalm 91was used exhaustively, by many preachers from home group leaders, as well as from the mainline churches. Some raised the issue of righteousness and piety to escape the virus as plague coming from God while others put up a challenge to look to God for help and work more tangibly for those affected.
Support for the needy was raised by churches and individuals, some Church Institutions, and Christian NGOs with resources and staff.
Sound biblical teaching on the issue and practical solidarity was a challenge in many cases. Above all, fear among the pastors and church workers were high for their own safety. Some of them got the virus and died.
Church services were suspended for six to seven weeks. When they were opened under restrictions, there was a situation of staying behind either not accepting the situational facts or over simplifying the case of the pandemic. Because of cultural intimate style of shaking hands and embracing, the public church meetings and worship services need to be clearly checked on these matters (SOPs).

Mission Priorities Of The Church In The Case Of Pandemics In Pakistan: Conclusion And Recommendations
With reference to the appeal by the WHO and Mission Theology of a tangible service in the midst of natural calamaties, following are some aspects of the challenge raised for Christian service in Pakistan in the wake of COVID 19.
Refuge: God is our refuge (Pslam 46:1, 11), Matthew 11:28-29). Those who dwell in the house of the most high God shall be protected, they will say, in him we will trust. (Psalm 91:1-2). Christian churches have a challenge to make its places a refuge for the people affected by the virus. There was a stage when space was needed set up camps and isolation wards for the patients. Some institutions opened their doors in this regard, but still more was needed.
Compassionate Service: COVID-19 in the beginning was taken a stigma. This was the time Christian pastors and workers would play their part to clear of the stigmatic side of the Virus. There were many such cases that because the stigmatic aspects were not reported and medical treatment was not taken and provided which ended up in deaths. There are records of lepers and people with other dreaded diseases who came to Jesus. Jesus cleared off the stigmatic side of the issue. Precautions are important, still compassionate service to those affected by the Virus is a challenge for those who worship and give glory to Jesus for his healing hand and glorious name.
Critical Link: Religious communities are strategic links between general public and Government, aid agencies and medical departments. In Jesus ministries disciples like Andrew and Philip acted like a strategic link introducing people to Jesus, asking for practical help or raising the issues of practical nature, e.g. how are we going to feed the crowd so large?
Pastoral Care: COVID-19 makes a visible case of pastoral care on a large scale for a long-term engagement. Counseling in the case of depravities and frustration is of utmost importance. Giving confidence and pointing out optimism in the midst of whole scale pessimism of losing jobs and continuous isolated situation of those who were not used to it in both urban and rural areas of the country is another practical commitment. The Lord Jesus highlighted the cases of Individuals and communities which stand a point of reference.
Giving: Sharing of resources, money and time are important. Tapping up local and international resources and using them wisely for the development and to uplift families and individuals in the context of COVID-19 are important areas to benefit children in their schooling, sick in their suffering and women in their plights of struggles to meet ends.
Advocacy: The Church in Pakistan has at many places raised their voice to uphold the case of COVID-19 as a crisis and emergency issue that needs attention with active plans to save humans from perishing. This invites us to keep the case of the deadly virus alive lest people ignore it and get trapped in a situation which is beyond their grips to sort out.



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