“Our country is facing the biggest natural disaster in its history,” Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore, the president of the Pakistani Bishops Conference, told the country’s 1.3 million Catholics in a pastoral letter read out at Masses in all churches throughout the country at the end of August. 

He told Pakistan’s Catholics that “in this critical moment of national tragedy, it is our Christian duty to stand shoulder to shoulder with our Muslim and Hindu brethren and face the common calamity with courage and determination.” 

‘Great mother’ inundation 

Pakistan is a politically unstable country in South Asia, bordering India, Iran and war-torn Afghanistan. Sixty percent of its 173 million people live on less than $2 per day. 

Ninety-five percent of Pakistanis are Muslim; Christians account for less than 2 percent of the population. 

Pakistan’s flooding — the worst in its recorded history — began late July after heavy monsoon rains fell over the Indus River basin. “Like a river that became a sea, the Indus now sprawls for miles,” the BBC reported late last month. 

By then 20 percent of the country, an area the size of Great Britain, had been flooded, and 16.8 million people had been affected, according to U.N. and Pakistani government sources. 

The “great mother,” as the River Indus is affectionately called because of the fertility it brought to the land, turned brutal and swept away tens of thousands of villages, homes, schools, water systems and medical facilities. 

“The disruption to water supplies means people either going thirsty or falling ill through drinking dirty water,” Caritas Internationalis, the international Catholic aid agency, reported. 

The floods killed more than 1,600 people, but “mercifully the toll has not been high because people were warned in advance,” said Bishop Joseph Coutts of Faisalabad, head of Caritas Pakistan. 

“Water gushing from north to south at 48 kph [30 mph] has swept away everything in its path,” he said. “I have seen it with my own eyes.” 

Muddy wells 

“The devastation is terrible and losses in the agricultural and livestock sectors run in the billions,” Bishop Coutts added. “Hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land are inundated, infrastructure disappeared and drinking wells are full of mud in many areas.” 

Caritas has offices in the country’s seven main cities and is “actively collaborating with district authorities and other local nongovernmental organizations.” 

Speaking in mid-August to UCAN, the Asian Catholic news agency, Bishop Coutts said Caritas Pakistan has appealed for assistance to the United Nations, the European Union and governments worldwide, including the United States. 

Caritas agencies in the Netherlands (Cordaid), Ireland (Trocaire), the United States (Catholic Relief Services) and Switzerland are cooperating with their Pakistani counterpart to bring relief to the flood victims, Michelle Hough of Caritas Internationalis, told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Right now “the priority is to ensure that people have food, water, shelter and medical help,” she said. “It’s such a traumatic situation for those who have lost everything, and who have to rely on others even for a drink of water.” 

Goods at gunpoint 

Ameen Babar, the disaster management program coordinator with Caritas Pakistan in Faisalabad, said with road networks destroyed or submerged underwater, travelling is not easy. “Sometimes you even have to wade through waist-deep water, not knowing where you are going to end up,” he said. 

There are other dangers, too. His team recently faced a gang of men who threatened to take the relief goods at gunpoint during a distribution at Gojra — a flooded town near Faisalabad — but “our team members managed to save themselves and the goods without violence, thanks to the skills they learned in training,” Babar said. 

Caritas teams have already provided medical supplies, food and nonfood items in three dioceses, Bishop Coutts reported. He said Faisalabad diocese and Lahore and Karachi archdioceses “are being hit by torrential rains,” while the other three dioceses (Hyderabad, Islamabad-Rwalpindi and Multan) and the Apostolic Prefecture of Quetta, “are badly affected by floodwaters.” 

The Archdiocese of Karachi is continuing its own relief effort with collection points sprouting up in parishes and Catholic schools. “Students are donating cash and relief supplies, and the Catholic board of education collected one day’s salary from teachers in the archdiocese,” Father Mario Rodriguez, the national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies, told UCAN in Karachi. 

The priest later complained that in parts of the Punjab, Sindh and Baluchiestan the government’s relief effort appeared to be “systematically” neglecting Christians. 

Caritas is “planning aid in terms of need; food items are being delivered where people have lost all their belongings, and construction material will be given to those with damaged house,” Bishop Coutts said

But he warned, “the worst is not over,” because “the floods struck at Pakistan’s heart: agriculture.” He explained how villagers store wheat for the year “but now that is gone,” and “the water will be slow to recede and will further destroy the land.” 

Already there is a shortage of vegetables, which has caused food price hikes, he said. Transport fares “have tripled” and the price of building materials “will climb higher” too, he predicted. 

“The poor will suffer,” Bishop Coutts said. 

Gerard O’Connell writes from Rome.

Papal Appeal (sidebar)

My thoughts go now to the dear population of Pakistan, recently struck by serious flooding which has left very many victims and has left many families homeless. 

While I entrust to God’s merciful goodness all those tragically lost, I express my spiritual closeness to their families and to all those who suffer because of this disaster. May our solidarity and the concrete support of the international community not be lacking to these our brothers, so sorely tried! 

Pope Benedict XVI speaking at the general audience Aug. 18