The Sewing Center Project is launched in North Pakistan to help incarcerated people provide for their families upon their release
by Dr. Hans Hallundbaek | Special to Presbyterian News Service
The Jesus call, “I was in prison, and you did not visit me,” is heard even in Pakistan, a Muslim country one-third the way around the world, where the sun rises nine hours earlier than it does in the Eastern Time Zone in the United States.
It is a country where Christianity, even as the third largest religion in Pakistan, makes up only 1.3% of the population. Pakistan is slightly larger than Texas, and densely inhabited, with a population of 241 million versus 31 million in the Lone Star State.
The Jesus call is heeded in this foreign land because courageous Christians living there have for centuries proclaimed the message of God’s love and forgiveness. They do so in harmonious cooperation with Islam, the official religion of Pakistan, protected by the country’s Constitution and practiced by 96.5% of the population. The remaining 3.5% practice Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism and other religions.
This story relates to one brave, resolute man who is not just a bleeding-heart Sunday morning Christian, but a person who learned the Jesus message the hard way.
Maurice Shahbaz was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 13. During his 12 years of incarceration, he experienced many difficulties and extreme trials, but he also acquired endurance and strength and managed to achieve a Bachelor of Arts degree. Upon release in 1998, he entered seminary and completed a Master of Divinity degree from the local Gujranwala Theological Seminary. He left the seminary with a biblical quote in his heart, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” (Proverbs 31:8)
Now a Christian leader with a burning desire for justice, the Rev. Maurice Shahbaz is the founder and director of the Prisons Mission Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to prison outreach and education to equip morally and spiritually the incarcerated to better face their future upon release.
With a well-trained, dedicated staff of well over 100 legal, health, and educational professionals, many of them committed community volunteers and church members, under the inspired leadership of Shahbaz, the Prisons Mission Society provides much-needed outreach in several Pakistani prisons. Their offerings include a broad program of lectures, seminars, religious services, and educational programs, in addition to ongoing support to individuals upon return to society.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of Maurice Shahbaz from prison, and great progress has been made by his organization in a part of the world where Christianity is a distinctly minority religion. Since Thomas the Apostle allegedly brought Christianity to the Indian subcontinent in the first century CE, tension has existed, and occasionally flares up between Islamic fundamentalists and the minority religions in the country. According to a recent press report, “sectarian strife remains a challenge to the Pakistani state and a danger to its citizenry. Large scale sectarian attacks, which killed thousands in the 1980s and 1990s, are now less frequent, but evidence suggests sectarian animosity is spreading into larger parts of the Sunni Islamist milieu.” Last August, Shahbaz reported that a number of churches and homes of poor Christian families had burned down.
Despite these threats, the Prisons Mission Society, in good social entrepreneurship style, recently conceived and raised funds for a promising new prison outreach project. Possibly inspired by the old proverb, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” they started a prison sewing project so the incarcerated can learn how to make clothing and upon release earn a living for their family.
This September, the organization launched the Sewing Center Project in the district jail of Abbottabad in Northern Pakistan. Shahbaz explains the project this way: “This is a six-month course started with 100 students including male and female prisoners and some incarcerated youth. In this half-year program, the prisoners will learn the skill of design, cutting, and stitching, so after release they will be able to earn bread for their families.” He continues, “Our organization donates all the fabric, thread, and other relevant material, as well as ongoing expert teaching and guidance.” Based on his years of experience, Shahbaz is determined to extend this program to additional prisons in the active network of his organization.
This community outreach program in faraway Pakistan is a shining example of the Adopt-A-Prison (AAP) concept introduced in the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York in 2020. Since then, this program has become a successful vehicle for developing a symbiotic relationship between prison and the local community and has inspired several pilot programs abroad. AAP has proven to be a valuable tool for the manifestation of the universal law of love.
As the Prisons Mission Society celebrates its 25th anniversary, Shahbaz admits that high on his dream wish list is the establishment of their own building for its growing operations, staff, and guests. We shared with him a prayer for the fulfilment of that dream.
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