Belgian Capuchin priests transfer church leadership to Pakistani clerics

Their missionaries stopped coming almost 30 years ago, but the leadership of the Belgian Capuchin Roman Catholic order in Pakistan views this as a sign of success, not failure.

"No one is coming from Belgium anymore," said Father Daniel Suply, 71, of St. Mary's Church in the eastern city of Lahore.

He is one of a handful of Belgian missionary friars remaining in Pakistan from an order which has been sending missionaries throughout the world since it received its founding charter in 1528.

The Vatican did not order the Belgian Capuchins to stop sending missionaries to Pakistan, Suply said. The transition from foreign to local leadership in clergy and the growth of the Catholic community has been gradual and natural.

"There was a time when fathers came from outside because there were no priests here," Suply said.

"The Pakistani sisters and priests are in the majority now and we are diminishing. The Pakistani church has been established."

When he arrived in 1960, there were almost 45 Capuchin friars from Belgium in Pakistan, Suply said. Only five of the 32 Capuchin friars, or brothers and fathers, in Pakistan today are Belgian, he said. All other Capuchin officials, including the country's bishop, are Pakistanis.

The Belgian friars initially sent to Pakistan grew older and retired or died. Leadership positions that became available were filled with Pakistanis trained by the Belgians to fulfil the religious requirements of the Catholic community, said Lahore-based Pakistani Capuchin Superior Father Francis Nadeem.

Pakistanis are also better able to serve as the local Catholic community's leaders, he said. "Pakistani priests and nuns know the language and culture of the locals, it is easier for them to work effectively," he said.

"This is the way it should be," Nadeem added. "I think the Capuchin order is going towards localisation. We would like more and more that Pakistanis see to the needs of the people."

The Belgians are encouraging the handover by training and teaching Pakistani priests and nuns. Suply has spent the last 20 years lecturing on theology and philosophy to Pakistanis, some of whom, including Nadeem, now hold the country's key Capuchin leadership positions.

The Capuchin mission remains the same despite other changes. Since their arrival in Pakistan in 1889 at the Vatican's request to replace the Italian and French Capuchins who had arrived by the late-1600s, their primary purpose has been to attend to the spiritual needs of their Catholic community and to serve and educate the poor, Nadeem said.

To accomplish these goals, the Christians, including the Capuchins, established missionary and parish schools which thousands of Pakistanis have and continue to attend.

President Pervez Musharraf, Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto have all lauded the quality education they received at these schools.

"If the missionaries had come with conversion in their minds, there would be many Christians (now), but that was not our purpose," Nadeem said. "Some people, some mullahs, think we are just here to convert people. That has never been our purpose, never. The mullahs preach to their own people, we preach to our own."

Christians and non-Muslims form about three percent of Pakistan's approximately 145 million population. Muslims and non-Muslims live in harmony most of the time, but there has been some attacks on Christians and Westerners in recent years.

The minority which is hostile incorrectly believes that Christians in Pakistan are connected with the West and are aimed at religious conversion, Nadeem said.

"Missionary means one who preaches the good news. It is not just one who converts," Nadeem said. The Belgian Capuchins in Pakistan are missionaries in the sense that they try to help their Catholic community and the poor, he explained.