The Church in Pakistan has played a pivotal role in the development of the country through its several charitable institutions. These institutions include the most well-reputed educational institutes, health sector facilities, drug rehabilitation centres, orphanages, widow homes, vocational centres and skill development training centres along with various other welfare and relief initiatives. Christians educational system was the largest in the country in the 1960s and has been continuously serving the country since then. The Church’s unprecedented contributions in uplifting the educational standards nation-wide, despite challenges like nationalism and extremism, can never be denied. In Christian institutes, more than 60% of students enrolled on the annual basis are Muslims. These institutions are highly preferred not only by the country’s elite, but also by lower/upper middle classes, including the poor because of their rich alumni and higher academic achievements.
Similarly, the health institutions also had served in the major wars of 1965 and 1971; they have also contributed in the wave of war on terror in the country in the 2000s and also in national disasters, especially in the recent pandemic. These institutions provide free services to vulnerable groups of society, especially to the religious minorities.
Since, last two years, these institutions have been under a serious financial crisis, due to compliance with the strict conditions of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on terror financing. The Church institutions and welfare initiatives are running on the basis of foreign funding and grant for the past 75 years, under the 1860s Societies Registration Act. The Church is not an NGO, but a religious charitable institution.
Due to a halt in Church funding, its institutions are facing challenges like organisational downsizing, and discontinuation of welfare projects which are affecting the quality of public service delivery of these well-reputed institutions. It is also raising the rate of unemployment and poverty, thus consequently, drifting towards the closure of these historical institutions.
High Court Lawyer Asad Jamal, contextualising the financial restrictions, said that after 9/11 during General Musharaf’s regime, an attempt was made to restrict terror funding when amendments were made to Societies Registration Act in 2005 with an aim to regulate and monitor the funding received by militant organisations and religious seminaries in order to curb the terror funding in the name of Islam. But unfortunately, this objective was not achieved as desired which hardened the stance of FATF in the shape of strict restrictions.
He said that in 2012-13, new policies were launched regarding NGOs and INGOs, in which the contract with the Economic Affair Division (EAD) was made mandatory if organisations were receiving foreign aid or funding, adding that the plan of government was to resist the money laundering and stop terror financing to organisations and individuals in Pakistan. He said that rather than making reforms through the legislative bodies, the government had launched a strict policy for all the organizations, including minority religious Institution, i.e. Church.
He was of the view that there was no rational argument or logic given to the Church in this regard, adding that this initiative was criticized and challenged at various stages. He informed that Sindh High Court (SHC) verdict had suspended EAD rules and had termed them not constructive without required legislation.
Further, he said, “Our government has the best of the Intelligence agencies; they must have investigated the profiles of organizations and must have categorized the organizations before imposing such strict policies. Without any evidence or investigations, generalizing the same policies for all kinds of organizations is unfair.”
Asad Jamal also said “These funds not only helped the Church to look-after its institutions that work for the welfare of the society, but also through these funds, protection and gratification of their religious needs was performed. Therefore, this is their fundamental right as the citizens of Pakistan.”
Zaheer Abbas, who is Diocesan Treasure at Diocese of Raiwind Church of Pakistan (COP) Lahore, pointed out: “In the years 2013-14, rules were revised regarding the Non-Government Organizations with an aim to control the money laundering and terror financing in the response to FATF’s worldwide policies to resist the terrorism and illegal financial transfers. These rules were mainly revised for NGOs as most organizations were alleged of illegal funding, but unfortunately, the Church was included in the same category of NGOs as Church is not an NGO but a charitable religious organization of minorities. The Church is not resentful of being held accountable to the government as the uncountable services of Church institutions are not only transparent but are recognized nationwide. The church has never been blamed for terrorism and money laundering.”
Highlighting the challenges faced by Church due to strict revised policies, Zaheer Abbas said that the Church is supposed to obtain clearance certificates from a number of entities under revised rules. He further clarified the process that first of all (a) Church has to be registered to Register of Join staff under Society Act (b) then registration at Punjab Charitable Commission of Church is mandatory (c) Church has to submit all audit reports to FBR to obtain tax exemption certificate (d) Pakistan Philanthropy Center Islamabad has to certify the Church and after all these prolonged stages at last (e) The Church applies to Economic affair Division (EAD) after the clarification of board members from several security agencies to gain the permission of the government.
In addition, Zaheer also said that this prolonged and lengthy process under revised policies took more than two years to get processed for Raiwind Diocese, adding that the case is still pending because the rules of the Economic Affairs Department (EAD) were suspended by the Sindh High Court in March-April this year. He further said that the Sindh High Court verdicts say that EAD revised rules lack legislative approval. Following this, he added, EAD was seeking directions from the Government for further lines of direction, but due to current political instability in the country, this matter of Raiwind Diocese was still delayed.
He said that the Church is suffering due to this prolonged delay, resulting in downsizing, administrative crises, and unemployment and keeping the high reputation of service delivery of these historical institutions in Punjab.
He further added that Moderator Bishop Azad Marshal of Raiwind Diocese Church of Pakistan has appealed for the relaxation of the rules for the Church being a religious organization of minorities to the previous PTI government, and has also asked Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif for his assistance in the matter but still, it was waiting for their response.
The Sialkot’s Bishop Ibrahim Daniel underlined that in Interior Punjab, there were several small community Churches, which were run with the support of small communities. Their monthly revenue is below 30-40 thousand rupees. These Churches struggle to meet their needs of electricity bills and salaries of security and clerical staff, adding that such small Churches are also struggling to open their bank accounts due to these revised policies of the government.
Furthermore, Bishop urged the government to clarify the criteria and rules for all the organizations. As far as Churches are concerned, the government should bifurcate the rules, keeping into consideration the volume, area and transactional history of the Church.
Jamshed Thomas, Member of National Assembly (MNA) from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, said that it’s important for the government to devise separate registration processes for Institutions of the Church other than NGOs. He also articulated that to ensure monetary transparency, Church institutions should be monitored by a separate state body. The review in policy must be incorporated on a priority basis in order to ease the rules for Church institutions. This will not only preempt financial tension in these historically rich institutions but also will develop the marginalized communities of the society.
” The Church institutions are suffering from the financial crisis for the last two years; government must resolve this issue timely as further delay will be immensely unfair to these centuries-old honest, dedicated and historical institutions of Pakistan,” he concluded.