Please remember, as you continue to celebrate the birth of Our Saviour with your families, that throughout the world there are many for whom such celebrations are beyond dreams. For these and for all prisoners of conscience may the new born King embrace them with love, consolation , mercy and compassion.
The following, from Aid to the Church In Need highlights a particular prison in Pakistan, but is replicated in prisons throughout the world.
Life in a Pakistani prison is truly a punishment, particularly for Christians. But local Church leaders strive to minister to prisoners, especially at a time like Christmas.
Conditions in the prisons are terrible. Torture is the order of the day. There is only one washing facility for a hundred prisoners, and the cells are tiny and overfilled. Some prisoners die from heat-stroke or from heart failure.
In 2010 alone, 72 people in Pakistan died in prison.
For Christians, it is even worse. They are already disadvantaged and oppressed in their “normal life,” but their situation in prison is even more precarious.
But in the prison of Faisalabad, Christians are still able to celebrate Christmas.
Dominican Father Iftikhar Moon and his brothers visit the prisoners. A room is dressed with Christmas decorations. Colorful glittering garlands and stars made of glossy paper give the grey walls a breath of Yuletide atmosphere.
Holy Mass is celebrated, and, last year, Bishop Joseph Coutts visited to spend Christmas with the Christian prisoners.
The prisoners sing Christmas carols. One of them gives the readings. Afterwards, presents are distributed: food, blankets, medicines and other gifts.
The warders also receive small gifts of biscuits or lemonade. Some of them join in the Christmas festivities, even though they are Muslims.
Father Iftikhar says, “Some policemen are good people who help us. But others are greedy and demand money.”
Most Christians are very poor and their families cannot afford to bribe the warders. So the Christian prisoners almost never receive visitors, in contrast to their Muslim fellow-inmates.
Many would have been released long ago if they had been able to afford to pay their fines. Sometimes the Dominicans are able to help them.
The prisons of Faisalabad, Pakistan’s third-largest city, contain 5,000 people. 85 to 100 of them are Christians. The majority of these were arrested for drug-related crimes or illegal trading in alcohol.
In Pakistan, only non-Muslims are allowed to buy alcohol, and even they require a permit. Some non-Muslims, including Christians, therefore purchase alcohol and sell it to Muslims on the black market for high prices.
Generally the police are also involved, and they are a permanent factor in this business. But at any moment they can decide to arrest those trafficking in the black market.
Father Iftikhar, whose work is supported by international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), regularly visits prisoners, and not only Christians or those arrested for minor crimes. He cares equally for those who are facing the death penalty.
Five or seven condemned prisoners share one tiny cell, he reports. When he visits them, the warders lock the door behind him. Then the religious father listens to their problems.
“Some of them regret their deeds. I have encountered men who killed their wives. They have wept and repented before God for their deeds.”
“Once, an old man was sitting in the condemned cell. He was a contract killer. He could no longer recall how many people he had murdered. He, too, wept. He regretted his deeds deeply,” recounts Father Iftikhar.
But there are also those who do not tell the truth and do not wish to admit their crimes.
“For example, there were three friends who worked together on a building site. They kidnapped a child and demanded a ransom from the family by telephone. They received the money, but murdered the young boy anyway.”
“When they are together they say they did it, but each of them individually puts the blame on the other two. In general, many of the people here tell lies. Almost all of them insist they are innocent in the hope of gaining favors.”
And the Dominican father is also concerned about another matter: “There are real criminal gangs in the prisons. They fight among themselves, and they often have mobile phones and carry on with their ‘job’ from their prison cell.”
“They arrange to have people murdered on the outside, and get money smuggled into the jail.”
In Islamic culture, forgiveness is understood in a quite different way to its meaning in Christianity. It is about revenge, an eye for an eye.
The practice of so-called “blood money” is also common. When the victim’s family agrees, the murderer pays money and escapes the death penalty.
Sometimes a young girl from the perpetrator’s family is given in marriage to an old man from the family of the victim.
“But some perpetrators prefer to be hanged rather than accept such a sacrifice,” Father Iftikhar notes.
The Dominicans not only help the prisoners but also their family members, above all when the prisoner was the family’s sole breadwinner. His arrest brings great hardship to his wife and children.
Here, the Dominican fathers try to ease the worst of the hardship, and they also seek to encourage the victim’s family to reconcile with the perpetrator and forgive him.
Meanwhile, the situation has become more difficult for the prison pastors. During an attempted jailbreak there was a fight between prisoners and police, and since then everything has been controlled very strictly.
Now, Father Iftikhar is only permitted to enter the prison on public holidays.
He has already complained to the prison director. “This is my job,” he told him.
At least at Christmas, Father Iftikhar and his brothers will be able to return to the prison.
They will give comfort to the prisoners and allow them, for two hours, to forget their suffering. For two hours, the prisoners will be able to feel like real people.
And the message of the Holy Mass will be for them, too: “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy; for to you is born this day a Savior.”