Largest crowds since pandemic flock to historic Sirkap site to pay homage to country’s patron saint
Father James Shamaun presents a shield of appreciation to Bishop Christophe Zakhia El-Kassis, Apostolic Nuncio to Pakistan, July 4. (Photo: Father James Shamaun)
Parkash Aslam conducted 14 seminars on the Apostle Saint Thomas ahead of the annual pilgrimage to the archaeological site of Sirkap in Taxila, Punjab province.
“Many of the faithful still have no idea of the apostle Saint Thomas. Priests and catechists are only interested in celebrating regular Masses. A series of seminars on Catholic saints, especially Doubting Thomas, can help strengthen the faith of minority Christians,” he told UCA News.
Since May, the volunteer of St. Thomas Group at St. Gerard’s Church, Faisalabad has been organizing sessions on one of the twelve apostles of Jesus in Catholic churches in Faisalabad inviting worshipers to join the July 3 pilgrimage in Sirkap which houses the ruins of the first church in the subcontinent.
According to tradition, Saint Thomas passed by Taxila on his way to India and preached at the court of King Gondophares. An early 3rd century Syriac work known as the “Acts of Thomas”, discovered in 1822 in Syria, indicates that the king gave the saint money and ordered him to build a royal palace.
Saint Thomas, however, gave all the money as alms and when the king discovered his disobedience, he ordered the saint to be burned alive.
Meanwhile, the king’s brother, Gad, died and then miraculously came back to life, after which he related that in heaven he had seen a palace built for Gondophares by Saint Thomas. The king forgave the saint and converted to Christianity, along with the inhabitants of the capital.
A legend says that Saint Thomas himself built the throne and preached there for 40 years. As the pilgrimage grew over the years in northern Pakistan, the tradition of July 1-3 pilgrimages turned into an annual fair in 1992.
Volunteers from the St. Thomas Group accompanied eight buses from Faisalabad, singing hymns and distributing refreshments for 322.3 kilometers north towards Taxila. The group charged 2,500 rupees (US$12) for each pilgrim.
They were among more than 3,000 pilgrims who prayed and lit candles at the meter-high throne. The pilgrims then visited the Taxila Museum which also exhibits a “sacred bone” relic of Saint Thomas.
According to Father Nasir William, Director of Social Communications Commission of Islamabad-Rawalpindi Diocese, this is a record since the pandemic began in Pakistan in March 2020.
“A huge crowd in groups showed up, especially from different parishes in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, located behind the Taxila Museum, added another attraction for pilgrims this year. Parishioners have been advised to wear face masks as coronavirus cases climb across the country,” he said.
The National Command and Operations Center has issued new guidelines for Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice, urging people to follow standard operating procedures after a 4.61% positive Covid rate -19 was recorded in the country with 675 cases on July 4.
Meanwhile, Bishop Christophe Zakhia El-Kassis, Apostolic Nuncio to Pakistan, made history on July 4 by becoming the first nuncio to visit Catholics in Taxila.
The jubilant parishioners pour rose petals on the nuncio to the rhythm of the dhol (a two-headed drum) and presented him with a turban, which symbolizes honor in Punjabi culture. Later, he planted a tree in the grounds of the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle consecrated on May 2.
The Archbishop recalled hearing about Pakistan’s patron saint from a Muslim guide.
“He informed me and my brother about Jesus Christ and the apostle Saint Thomas. He didn’t know anything about me and I didn’t interrupt him. It was fascinating to see how a non-Christian spoke of Christ,” the nuncio said on the sidelines of the party.
According to Bishop Joseph Indrias Rehmat of Faisalabad, Pope John Paul II kissed the ground upon his arrival in Pakistan in February 1981.
“It was out of respect for the apostle. The places of pilgrimage are the fifth gospel according to Saint Jerome. We must continue to relive our history,” he said at the July 1 rally in Saeedabad, a sub-parish.
However, Aslam, an electrician, joined the pilgrims in complaining about the lack of facilities in Sirkap.
In 2019, former Punjab Human Rights and Minority Affairs Minister Ejaz Alam Augustine announced the construction of a chapel and park at the site.
“There is no development. Even some of the trees en route to the throne of St. Thomas have been felled, taking away much needed shade during the hot and humid season. There was only only one toilet,” he said.
“The archeology department didn’t even allow us to set up tents or bring rice pots. We had to set up the food and drink stalls at the gate of the site. Twenty rupees was charged as entrance fee to each pilgrim. Why should we pay for something that belongs to us,” he said.
Initiated in 2016 in Faisalabad, the St. Thomas group supports uneducated children and school dropouts in addition to promoting devotion to the annual St. Thomas pilgrimage. Last year, Catholic volunteers pooled 36,000 rupees to admit 22 children to schools.