By Deacon Michael Russo
Editor’s Note: As the Saint Benedict Parish, Johnstown, website continues to expand, Imran Mustaq connected with Deacon Michael Russo at the parish. They chatted each day, sharing prayer and comparing life experiences about their respective countries. Imran expressed a desire to learn more about Sacred Scripture, so Deacon Michael began meeting with him online each Friday for 60-90 minutes to study the Bible.
Our outreach to Imran Mustaq continues as he establishes a school for Christian children. In Pakistan, Christian children must change their name to one that is Muslim and convert to Islam to be accepted in a Muslim school. Parents who oppose these regulations have no choice but to remove their children from these schools to avoid bullying and mistreatment. Gathering a small group of children, including some who are orphans, Imran has taken on the personal responsibility of educating them by establishing a school separate and apart from the Muslim schools. Since any Christian reference would create unwanted and dangerous attention, Imran chose” Little Hearts of Faith Learning Center” for the school’s name.
The school day is filled with daily lessons that, along with primary study, includes religious education and Bible study. The faces we see remind us of our own children and grandchildren, working hard and learning together as a class… singing songs about Jesus and praying.
Imran encourages the children to take their studies seriously while instilling a love of God in their hearts and an understanding that God loves them unconditionally.
“Little Hearts of Faith Learning Center” is a safe place where they are not threatened or bullied for their faith. In his humble way, Imran is giving the children the space to cultivate their roots of faith.
Due to the lack of resources, only twenty-three students, age 3 to 15, can attend the school at this time. With no school building available, classes are held outside on the roof of a building. It is a format that resembles the “one-room schoolhouse” concept used in the United States in the last half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. Hundreds of students could join the school if there was a school facility available. It is Imran’s dream to someday have a school that would allow more children the opportunity of a Christian based education. Sadly, the reality is that Imran struggles to maintain his “roof-top” school for the small number of students currently attending. As the school is established and accredited, the education quality the student will receive will permit them to go on to higher education. Imran is currently investigating the government requirements necessary to certify the school properly.
The students attend classes for three to five hours a day, depending on their age, and are given homework assignments to complete. Like all schools, the children have “playtime,” making do with what they have because there are no good playgrounds for them to use. If any of the children work (child labor is common and even includes the very young children), they do so on the farms or have been known to work in the factories making bricks.
The children need food, clothing, shoes, and school supplies (including pencils, writing tablets, teaching aids, etc.) as well as a permanent building that would be conducive to learning. Currently, there are two teachers, Imran, and his brother. They support the school and the children as best as possible from the wages they receive from their jobs.
Although both men are well educated, they are not permitted to have better-paying jobs because those better paying jobs are given to the Muslim community. Christian men and women are given jobs in the fields or other hard labor work. Many work in the brickyards making bricks. They are expected to produce 1,500 to 2,000 bricks per day, and their pay is about $5.00 per day, barely enough to survive in the most basic living conditions.
“Open Doors USA” is a non-denominational mission supporting persecuted Christians worldwide and reporting about Christian persecution wherever it is found. They recently posted the following update on Christian persecutions in Pakistan:
“Christians in Pakistan face extreme persecution in every area of their lives. Believers who have converted from Islam face the greatest levels of persecution, but all Christians are considered second-class citizens in this strongly Islamic country. They are given jobs perceived as low, dirty, and dishonorable, and can be bonded labor victims. Some Christians are among the middle classes, but they are still considered inferior to their Muslim counterparts and often face severe workplace discrimination. Christian girls are at risk of abduction and rape and are often forced to marry their attackers and coerced into converting to Islam.”
“Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws are used to target Christians, and Islamic extremist groups vehemently ‘defend’ these laws, including attacking or killing those believed to have contravened them. Christian churches do exist, but those who are active in outreach face severe persecution from society. Pakistan remains one of the hardest places to live as a Christian, and violent persecution against Christian and church buildings continues to be particularly bad.”
In addition to this information, the Pakistani government recently supported a law that defunded any program that offered protection for any persecution to Christians. Defunding protection laws means the Christians are fair game for persecution.
Imran and the children are grateful for their new friends in the United States and pray for them every day. They hope for the day when they can have their classes indoors with the school supplies they need to be better students.
If you would like to help Imran and the children, please contact Deacon Michael at: firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 288-3036. A GoFundMe page has been established by Deacon Michael for this worthy cause.
Deacon Michael Russo is in diaconal service at Saint Benedict Parish in Johnstown and is the Director of the Permanent Diaconate in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and Director of the diocesan offices of Adult Enrichment and Lay Ecclesial Ministry.