By Hafsa Adil
Karachi, Pakistan – A slender, athletic teenage girl enters the premises of St Lawrence’s church, Karachi, and is promptly mobbed by dozens of kids gathered there for football practice.
|Non-muslim who wore the Pakistan flag|
Hockey: Peter P Fernandes, Milton D’Mello, Jack Britto, Rony Gardner, Gordon Vaz, Gerry Barboza
Cricket: Wallis Mathias, Duncan Sharpe, Khalid “Billy” Ibadulla, Antao D’Souza, Sohail Fazal, Anil Dalpat, Rusi Dinshaw, Danish Kaneria, Mohammad Yousuf
Football: Michael Masih, Nomi M Gill
Badminton: Mennen Soares
Table tennis: Michael Rodrigues
Snooker: Naveen Perwani
Sailing: Byram D Avari, Goshpi Avari
Proudly donning the green and white Pakistan training kit, this was Joyann Geraldine Thomas who became the first female Christian to play football for Pakistan.
She made her international debut in November 2014, shortly after turning 17. The game, or her debut, barely received the attention associated with an international fixture.
But nearly a thousand miles across from Islamabad’s Jinnah International Stadium, her presence in the middle of the field was the culmination of dreams for a single working mother, a passionate young Catholic coach and a veteran footballer-turned-guru.
Lack of minorities on the field
According to official statistics, Pakistani Christians form the second largest minority community at 1.6% of the country’s total population.
There have been instances of minority representation in Pakistan’s sports history but they have been few and far between. And the numbers have dropped in the last two decades. Thomas is also wary of the growing intolerance towards minorities in Pakistan.
In the past three years, there have been at least 38 targeted attacks on the Christian community and over 200 lives have been lost.
Two suicide attacks at Lahore churches killed at least 14 in March.
Ten days before she made her debut, a Christian couple was lynched over allegations of desecrating pages of the Quran.
Even Thomas’ mother, a former track and field athlete, faced a bitter end to her budding career. She was denied the opportunity to run in the provincial finals due to religious discrimination.
“My mother has never let her own disappointment get in the way of my career,” Thomas told Al Jazeera.
She hugged and high-fived the boys and girls of Laurentian Football Club (LFC), which is part of the century-old parish located in one of Karachi’s old neighbourhoods, Garden East.
“This is where it all started for me when I was five. At the beginning, this was a boys-only club. But girls were also encouraged to play by our coach Khayyam Juma.”
Juma is a former school-level footballer who was also at the receiving end of religious discrimination during his playing days. He formed the club in 1989 with the vision of keeping Catholic boys involved in sport and away from the vices plaguing the city at the time.
Girls and parents were also encouraged to join in for a kick-about.
“It’s not that we didn’t want to include non-Christians. We tried mixed teams but it never worked,” Juma explained, blaming illiteracy for Pakistan’s lack of tolerance towards minorities.
“Even if the kids never cared about these differences, the parents did. There would be arguments and fights, and it just turned into a big mess.”
Thomas credits Ahmed Jan with bringing her up on the football field. Jan is a popular but controversial man in Pakistan’s footballing circles. Known for his outspoken behaviour and disregard for authority, Jan has had several altercations with the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF).
Regardless of his notoriety, he enjoys god-like status among the young boys and girls playing football in Karachi – especially those from the minorities.
|Major incidents involving Christians since 2005|
November 2005: Over 3,000 men attacked Christian community in Sangla Hills (Punjab) over allegations of blasphemy. Three churches, dozens of houses and several other buildings were burnt down.
February 2006: Churches and Christian schools were attacked in protest over publication of Jllyands-Posten cartoons in Denmark.
July 2008: Mob stormed a church in Karachi during prayer and injured several worshippers.
August 2009: Reports of desecration of Quran led to a series of attacks, leaving eight people dead, a church and dozens of houses gutted.
March 2011: Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in Islamabad by the TTP after criticism of the blasphemy law.
April 2011: Demonstrators attacked a Christian community in Gujranwala.
September 2012: Protestors set afire a church in Peshawar in anger over the film ‘Innocence of Muslims’.
March 2013: Allegations of blasphemy led to an attack on Joseph Colony, a Christian community in Lahore. Over 100 houses were burnt down.
September 2013: A suicide attack by TTP on the All Saints Church in Peshawar left 75 dead.
November 2014: A Christian couple was lynched by a mob in Kot Radha Kishan over allegations of blasphemy.
March 2015: Successive suicide blasts targeting two churches in Lahore left at least 14 people dead and over 70 injured.
“I’ve always wanted to help minorities get the representation they deserve in Pakistani football,” Jan said.
“So when the LFC kids started playing at the KMC ground, I saw it as an opportunity to train them and prepare them for the bigger stage.
“When I first met Thomas, I wasn’t too sure because of her built. But she had made up her mind to do this and her mother was also determined to make sure that Thomas wasn’t held back by gender and religious barriers.”
Thomas plays in midfield and defence for national champions Balochistan United Football Club (BUFC).
Passion and dedication
Recalling the day she picked Thomas for the club, BUFC President and national Senator Rubina Irfan said it was the teenager’s passion and dedication that struck a chord with her.
Irfan also heads the PFF Women’s Wing and believes sports authorities have been successful in keeping players and officials away from discrimination and nepotism.
“For us, there is no such thing as a Christian girl or a Muslim girl. Even the other girls (in the team) never think about things such as religion or caste.”
Thomas endorsed those claims.
“When I was giving trials for the national team, girls who were not from my club didn’t know I was a Christian until they saw the cross around my neck.”
Despite the talent, Thomas did, at times, wonder if her religion could be used as an excuse to deny her the opportunity to rise further.
Every team meeting held to announce the shortlisted names turned into a struggle. Sweaty palms, breath held back, fingers clenched and eyes shut, she said a silent prayer every time her name wasn’t called out.
“The first time I realised I was in contention for the squad was when I was asked to give measurements for the team blazer. I thought, hang on, they wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t think I would make it.
“So I called up my mom to tell her and the news spread like wildfire in our community. I was inundated with calls from people congratulating me on becoming first Christian girl to make it this far.”
According to Juma, Thomas has pushed the door open for other Christian girls make a career in sport.
And despite her age, Thomas is not only aware of her feat, but also her responsibility.
“How long will I keep serving as an example for kids to take up sports in a country where minorities don’t even get basic security, let alone equal opportunity in all fields?
“How long are the people of the Christian or Hindu or Sikh communities going to motivate and encourage their younger generations to represent Pakistan if this is how they will see the minorities being treated here?
“Pakistan must progress and it will only progress if it shows love and sincerity to all religions, races and ethnicities.”