Transgender Pakistanis find solace in their own church

Kathy Gannon
Associated Press

Karachi, Pakistan — Pakistan’s Christian transgender people, often mocked, abused and bullied, say they have found peace and solace in a church of their own.

Shunned by other churches, they can raise their voices high here.

In a recent service, transgender women, flowing scarves loose over their hair, conducted Bible readings and raucously sang hymns, accompanied by the rhythms of a drum played by a transgender elder in the church.

Transgender people attend a prayer service at Pakistan's first church for transgender worshippers, in Karachi, Pakistan, Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.

The First Church of Eunuchs is the only one for transgender Christians in Pakistan. “Eunuch” is a term often used for transgender women in South Asia, though some consider it derogatory. The church’s pastor and co-founder, Ghazala Shafique, said she chose the name to make a point, citing at length verses from the Bible saying eunuchs are favored by God.

In Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, on the Arabian Sea coast, it sits in the shadow of a towering brownstone cathedral, where the congregation says they don’t feel welcome.

“People looked at us with eyes that are laughing,” said Nena Soutrey, a transgender woman whose life has been a tragedy of beatings, bullying and abuse.

“No one wants to sit near us and some even say we are an abomination. But we’re not. We are humans. We are people. What is wrong with us? This is who we are,” she said, a bright red scarf over her shoulders.

Transgender women and men of all faiths are often publicly bullied and humiliated or even face violence in deeply conservative Pakistan, though the government has recognized them officially as a third gender. Often disowned by their families, they resort to begging and work as wedding dancers. They often are sexually abused and end up as sex workers.

Transgender Christians are a minority within a minority in the overwhelmingly Muslim country. Christians and other religious minorities often face discrimination. While the community can find support among themselves, transgender Christians are most often rejected.

At churches, they are told to sit at the back and sometimes told not to dress as a woman. Arsoo, a transgender woman, said that in churches with separate women’s and men’s sections, she was bounced back and forth, told by the women to sit with the men and told by the men to sit with the women.

Arzoo said she loved to sing the hymns or recite the Bible, but in churches she attended they asked her not to sing.

“I would try to come in front but the others, they considered it a dishonor if we participate,” she said. “I don’t understand why they feel like this. We are human too, born of our parents. The way God created them, God also created us.”

The church is set up in the courtyard outside Shafique’s home. Brightly colored carpets give warmth to the concrete yard. Pale blue plastic chairs, many of them dirty and cracked, serve as pews. It’s in the same sprawling compound as the cathedral, protected by high walls and a steel gate.

But there’s no mistaking that the humble church belongs to them: A giant six-foot billboard emblazoned with a large cross proudly announces in English, “The First Church for Eunuchs.” An Urdu translation underneath uses the term transgender Pakistanis more often use for themselves, “khwaja sira.”

Shafique, a rare female pastor in Pakistan, was approached about starting the church by an unexpected advocate, a Muslim — Neesha Rao, Pakistan’s only transgender lawyer. Rao tells with pride how she begged on the streets for 10 years to put herself through law school.

Rao said she was moved by transgender Christian friends often afraid to announce their faith, fearing a further abuse, but also couldn’t find solace among fellow Christians.