Pakistan's transgender community gets its own church: 'Now we have some peace'

Ben Farmer
·3-min read
Transgender people attend a prayer service at Pakistan's first church for transgender worshippers - Fareed Khan /AP
Transgender people attend a prayer service at Pakistan's first church for transgender worshippers - Fareed Khan /AP

Church services for 26-year-old Angel were once an ordeal. The congregation at her Karachi church would not allow her to read from the bible or sing and she could only sit at the back, out of sight.

As one of Pakistan's transgender community, Angel was no stranger to bullying and harassment, but the discrimination at church was particularly hurtful.

“I used to go to church many times, but people used to laugh and behave strangely,” she told the Telegraph. “It was a very painful time.”

So the opening of Pakistan's first transgender church has been life-changing for her. Here, those used to being mocked and abused say they have found respite in a worship place of their own.

Nisara Gill, right, leads a prayer service - Fareed Khan /AP
Nisara Gill, right, leads a prayer service - Fareed Khan /AP

The First Church of Eunuchs, which gathers in an informal space rather than an actual building, is the only one for transgender Christians in Pakistan.

“We no longer have to worry about worship,” explained Angel. “Now we have our own church and we worship here. Now there is [some] peace in life.”

In 2018, Pakistan introduced what were hailed as the most progressive legal protections for transgender people in Asia. The legislation allows them to identify their own gender on official documents and guarantees protection from harassment.

Pakistan's last census in 2017 recorded some 10,000 transgender people, though the real figure is thought to be significantly higher.

Yet in reality, discrimination and physical attacks remain rife and many say they still have few income opportunities beyond sex work and begging.

“Words cannot describe how difficult it was for a trans to go from church to church,” said Angel, who runs a beauty parlour in Karachi's Buffalo colony. “When sitting on the seats, the people sitting together would separate. Some would say it's a woman's place. Don't sit here.”

“The Lord is as much ours as the common people.”

Transgender people attend a prayer service - Fareed Khan /AP
Transgender people attend a prayer service - Fareed Khan /AP

The new church was founded by Ghazala Shafique, who is also the pastor. Services are conducted on plastic chairs in the courtyard outside Shafique’s home, which is in the same sprawling compound as the city's cathedral.

The country's Christians already face discrimination due to their faith, meaning transgender Christians are particularly vulnerable.  

“Neither their family nor their society recognise them,” said Ms Shafique. “They are also human beings, they also have emotions. They also miss their Lord in joy and sorrow. They should have the full right to worship freely.”

Arzoo, another member of the congregation, said: “Many times I went to church. At first, it was difficult to know which side to sit on. People were staring. Like there were no other creatures like us. We were not allowed to read the Bible or sing. It hurt a lot.

“Now, Pastor Ghazala has arranged a separate church for us, where many transgenders like me can worship freely. 

“Here [we can] read the Bible and sing songs. The day before last I read the first chapter of Genesis.  This was nothing short of a dream for me.”