Church of Pakistan

Pakistan’s first-ever ‘Church of Eunuchs’, set up inside the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Karachi earlier this year, welcomes around three dozen transgender Christians every Friday.

Pastor Ghazala Shafique, who founded and runs the makeshift church next to her home — comprising an open air rostrum and seating arrangements —, told Sabaat that Christian transgender persons became more inclined towards religion during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its associated air of dread and despair. However, she regretted that they were not welcome at churches for being ‘different’. This is why Ghazala, a member of the Church of Pakistan, decided to take matters into her own hand and set up an improvised place of worship so they could find some solace amid the pandemic and, with the power of her persuasion and a bit of prayer, their rightful place in any church of the city.

“Other churches did not allow transgender persons to sit in the front rows. Some would tell them to ‘cover your heads’ while some said the opposite (thinking of them as men). Such conflicting instructions confused them, and many stopped going to churches altogether,” Ghazala explained, adding that even in her own church in Mehran Town, transgender Christians would feel uncomfortable as locals would stare and pass comments when they’d visit.

When some pastors confronted Ghazala with ‘theological issues’ from having transgender persons in church, she invited them for a discussion about a particular verse she knew to be the source of confusion. “I resolved that theological issue and then started this makeshift church, because if God favours and accepts them, then there is no other question,” she asserted.

Pastor Ghazala Shafique started the Church of Eunuchs outside her home next to the Holy Trinity Cathedral. Photo: Writer

“A handful of conditions have been laid out to visit a church, which include fear of God and accepting God’s laws, and to make sure you are clean. There is no mention of how to dress up and where to sit,” she claimed, adding that the church leaders have no ground for objecting to her church or welcoming transgender persons in their own congregations.

Now, every Sunday, Ghazala takes members of her congregation to other churches as well. “I make them sit with me and tell them to read the Bible and worship — something they couldn’t even imagine doing earlier,” she said, adding that many other pastors now realise they were wrong to not treat them equally and ignored them.

‘Not welcome’

“During the coronavirus lockdowns when we were confined in our homes, we found time to read about the Bible and the Messiah on the internet,” explained Kiran, a transgender persons’ guru [group leader].

However, Kiran said that because of the resistance to their presence, they couldn’t just go to any church and thus always wanted a dedicated worship place of their own.

“When the Church of Eunuchs started, we felt as if we have found true peace and happiness,” she shared further.

Arzoo recalled that whenever she went to a regular church she was told to dress up like a man. “I got confused because since I was 12, I knew I was not a man. I felt like wearing makeup and dressing up like a woman. Those instructions at the church put me off so I stopped going there,” she complained.

Saima, a 34-year-old transwoman, emphasised that she was never cowered out by the bullying and mocking at churches as she knows “how to deal with such people”. But everyone is different, she explained, referring to those who felt extremely perturbed by all the harassing and questions and thus avoided going to churches.

“During the coronavirus pandemic, I read about finding solace in God’s love and mercy. There are people who make fun of us, but God loves us and that is why He talked about us in the Bible,” she asserted with pride, before thanking Pastor Ghazala for giving the city’s transgender Christians a worship place of their own.

Pastor Maria Sardar, who these days is a frequent visitor to the Church of Eunuchs to help the congregation practice Christmas Carols, said that we generally do not associate transpersons with religion. “It is encouraging to see that they now understand the importance of their religion and want to practice it just like other members of society,” she stated.

‘I hope they’ll be accepted’

Members of the congregation reciting Christmas carols. Photo: Sabaat

Advocate Khan Muzzamil Mehmood explained that Article 20 of the Constitution outlines the right to profess, practice and propagate religion for every citizen, including minorities. He added that the Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Act 2018 also gives the rights to transgenders to access any religious and public places.

The plight of transgender Christians transcends borders. According to a study published in The Legal Status of Transsexual and Transgender Persons, a growing number of Christian denominations, particularly within Protestant traditions, are softening their stance on transgenderism and embracing trans people as congregants and ministers. However, the noted that the Catholic and Orthodox churches remain officially opposed to transgenderism. “The overwhelming majority of the 2.1 billion Christians in the world belong to Churches which are officially unsympathetic to the claims of transgender people,” it observed.

Christian rights activist Safina Gill regretted that our society does not even consider transgender persons humans, and how even their own parents disown them while they are still young and vulnerable, thereby increasing their suffering.

Gill added that in most cases, families kick them out of their homes for being ‘different’, after which they move in with others of their kind and look for ways to make ends meet. “Some transgenders who now attend church used to be sex workers as they knew nothing about their religion. Since the church has been set up, they are keenly learning about their religion and seeking alternative means to earn a living,” she said further.

When asked as to what lies ahead now for the provisional Church of Eunuchs, Ghazala said she is in talks with the Church of Pakistan bishop to formalise the establishment.

“I hope the churches will accept them [transgender persons],” she wished, adding that she will run the Church of Eunuchs until she ordains its pastor, and Bible and Sunday school teachers with the assistance of the Christian leadership.

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