New train project in Lahore provokes Christians

“We are not averse to progress and development, we are simply asking the government not to cut our arm off,” Shahid Mehraj said, by way of metaphor.

May 20, 2016

LAHORE, Pakistan: “We are not averse to progress and development, we are simply asking the government not to cut our arm off,” Shahid Mehraj said, by way of metaphor. Mehraj is parish priest of the Church of the Resurrection, an Anglican cathedral in Lahore, who talked about an issue that is currently concerning Christians in the capital of Pakistani Punjab.

It has nothing to do with terrorism or the blasphemy law, but rather, with what Christians perceive as a “hostile act” on the part of the municipal and provincial government. What is stirring up the local community is a new urban mobility project that is meant to cater for a city – suburbs included – that now has as many as 11 million inhabitants.

Last January, the Punjab government gave the go ahead for construction work to begin on a new metropolitan train line called the “Orange Line”, an elevated train line that will connect the capital of the province from north to south.

The line will be 27 kilometres long, it will have 26 stops and when launched – the estimated launch date being October 2017 – will be able to transport 250,000 passengers a day and this could rise to 500,000. This is a colossal project, the first of its kind in fact for the Pakistani city and it is set to revolutionise the travel options of hundreds of thousands of city dwellers, every day. It would make life easier for the droves of people who face unbearable, messy and chaotic traffic on a daily basis on their journey to and from work.

Building sites are now visible across the city and construction work is speeding along, partly because of an agreement with Chinese building companies, which are renowned for their industriousness and swift interventions. The project will involve expropriating people from their land, homes and private and public properties, to make room for the enormous concrete pillars that are to support the tracks for the new train, which will eventually whiz above city dwellers’ heads.

When deciding the route of this modern orange-coloured train, its designers did not spare the land on which four Christian churches are built: an Anglican church (the Cathedral) and three Presbyterian churches. The sketches show that the land in front of, or around, the sacred edifices would be seized. “These are essential spaces for us, they are used for parish youth club activities, worship and major liturgical celebrations,” said Inayat Bernard. Bernard is a Catholic priest who is involved in Lahore’s ecumenical Forum and is raising awareness about the issue among the population and institutions.

In the case of one of the Presbyterian churches, there is a fear that a section of it could be demolished. This outrage “disrupts the peace of the Christian community and the harmony in our society,” said Franciscan friar Francis Nadeem, who is also backing his Protestant brothers in a campaign that saw a public protest taking place in the streets of Lahore in recent days.

Today, Christian communities are calling for modifications to be made to the route and for the project to be reviewed in order to save their properties. Christians are, therefore, lodging a complaint with Lahore’s High Court and the court has issued an order temporarily suspending the construction work, in order to decide how to proceed. The municipal government has informally assured Christian leaders that the project is to be reviewed “but until the judges rule on the case, anything can happen,” Shalid Mehraj noted.

The faithful are not the only ones complaining: a number of other buildings and sites of historical, artistic and religious importance risk demolition. NGOs point out that the new metro line will displace thousands of people who “deserve adequate compensation and relocation”. There are at least 26 historical sites that risk demolition despite the protection they receive as sites of artistic importance. Among these is the Mominpura cemetery which is especially important to the Shiite community.

Farida Shaheed, former UN special rapporteur in the field of human rights, remarked that “the destruction of these sites violates the rights of citizens and causes significant damage to the city’s cultural heritage”.

Meanwhile, an institute for underprivileged children, which offered assistance to 180 families with disabled children, was demolished and the families are waiting to transfer their little ones to another school. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an NGO that defends everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief, stated: “It is clear that in the planning and construction of this train line, the Punjab government is in contravention of various legislation regarding cultural heritage, as well as international covenants protecting cultural rights and the right to freedom of religion or belief.” -- La Stampa

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