Fr Emmanuel Asi is proof that the word of God, living and active, will nourish and change lives even in difficult places.
The 74-year-old executive secretary of the Catholic Bible Commission of Pakistan and former teacher of Rockdale parish’s Fr Yacub Barkat, brought his love of scripture to Sydney on a recent visit.
Fr Asi says Catholics can’t get enough of the bible in the 97 per cent Muslim country where Islam is the state religion, spreading Christianity is illegal and most of the Christians are poor.
The commission prints up to 80,000 Bibles at a time, works of biblical exegesis and church documents on the scriptures all translated into Urdu, the local language.
It offers training and formation to lay Catholics and promotes an annual Bible marathon, where parishes organise for the whole of the scriptures to be read aloud from Genesis to the Book of Revelation over a week.
“We are lucky and filled with blessing that we live in an atmosphere where the word of God is highly esteemed and loved,” Fr Asi said.
“In Pakistan whatever you can offer people in relation to the Word of God is welcomed, so the spiritual landscape in that sense is very fertile.”
He’s excited about a new project to meet the challenge of the country’s estimated 40 percent illiteracy rate—partnering with another Christian organisation to produce an audio version of the New Testament on a pocket-sized solar-powered device.
Fr Asi has authored more than 30 books on theology and faith and was a professor of sacred scripture at Pakistan’s St Francis Xavier seminary for nearly a decade.
He inherited his passion for scripture from his father, Murad Rufin, an illiterate master tailer who was “extraordinarily devoted” to the Word of God.
“When we children were young he would invite us to come and read the Bible to him while he sat on the ground at his sewing machine,” Fr Asi said.
“He knew a lot of the Bible but could not read it properly, so all the customers who came in, many of them Muslim, heard me reading the scriptures while he would be interpreting and preaching.
“It gave me a big advantage when I went to Rome and studied sacred scripture.”
Pakistani Christians face discrimination in everyday life in schools, workplaces, social and political life and Fr Asi says strict blasphemy laws have been weaponised against them and violence against them can flare up at any time.
“Last August people burned 19 of our churches, just on the suspicion that two of the Christians pronounced some bad words about the holy prophet (Muhammad),” he said.
Fr Asi said the church’s top priority is to help Christians to educate their children.
“It is in the society and the family where Christian faith and values are transmitted to the next generation,” he said.
“I’m not denying the role of the church but in practice it plays a minor role.”