Bangkok, Nov. 7, 2019: When Pope Francis celebrates Mass in a Bangkok sports stadium Nov. 21, tens of thousands of Catholics from across Thailand will congregate to celebrate with him.
But several devout Pakistani Christians will probably stay away, despite desperately wanting to be there. By venturing outdoors to attend the Mass, they run the risk of being arrested by authorities and deported.
They hope the Pope will recognize their plight and speak out on their behalf when he visits Thailand Nov. 20-23 before spending three days in Japan.
“If I could meet Pope Francis in person, I’d ask him to please help us. Pope Francis often speaks up for refugees. Maybe he could do that for us, too,” said a man identified as James, an asylum seeker.
“I really want to meet the Holy Father and tell him about the situation in Pakistan and our situation in Bangkok,” said another Pakistani Christian. “But I know it’s impossible.”
Another Pakistani Christian believes acknowledgement of their plight by the Pope would help their cause.
“It could make a big difference for our community,” said the asylum-seeker from Islamabad. “It would be very helpful to us.”
Thailand is the temporary home of about 1,500 Pakistani Christians who fled Pakistan in fear for their lives. They were driven away by an increasingly militant form of Islam that has come to dominate the public sphere, threatening the rights and freedoms of religious minorities.
In Thailand, however, they are regarded as illegal migrants who are subject to arrest and deportation. So they remain in hiding, waiting for a chance to relocate to a welcoming third country.
Their plight was chronicled in a recent series in The Catholic Register, which described an effort being led by the Archdiocese of Toronto, and supported by dioceses across the country, to bring 65 of these families to Canada.
“Any time we go outside, we could be arrested,” said James, from Lahore, Pakistan, who works part time, illegally, as an interpreter for a Catholic organization.
“We are suffering. It’s very difficult. I’ve been in Bangkok for nearly seven years. It might take another year and a half before I can leave (for a third country).”
But James said he will attend the Mass to see the Pope.
“I’ll be there,” he stressed. “I think every Catholic should be there.”
To avoid being incarcerated in overcrowded immigration detention centres, asylum-seekers like James are hiding in small apartments, trying to stay out of sight. Even when they venture outdoors they do so only briefly to avoid immigration police officers.
“I only go out at night, after 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., when there are fewer people on the streets,” James said. “When you live like us, you have a constant fear in your mind that makes you paranoid. You keep looking over your shoulder, thinking everyone is staring at you. It’s very damaging psychologically.”
Another Pakistani Catholic asylum-seeker who lives in Bangkok told ucanews.org: “I don’t know if I can go and see His Holiness. … If I go there and (the authorities) stop me, that will be a big problem for me, because I don’t have any documents.”
He fled Karachi after he was accused of defaming Islam, a capital offence in the conservative Muslim nation. He arrived in Thailand on a tourist visa, which has long since expired. He lives frugally on monthly handouts and food packages from Christian charities.
If he stays home he will watch the broadcast live on a Thai television channel.
Some asylum-seekers will take their chances to attend the Mass so as to be near Pope Francis.
“If it’s possible for me, I’ll go,” said a Catholic electrician from Islamabad who has been in Bangkok since 2013. “If I could speak to him, I would ask the Holy Father, ‘Please help us get to a safe haven like you have helped Syrian Muslims.’ ”
In recent years, Pope Francis has repeatedly called on Europeans and their nations’ governments to welcome the more than one million migrants from the Middle East and Africa.