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Pakistan: Karachi's dwindling Goan Christian community

Mohammad Salman in Karachi
March 5, 2024

The Pakistani city of Karachi has a small but dedicated Christian community. DW looks at how their society developed and why it's been declining.

St Patrick’s Cathedral Saddar, Karachi, Province of Sindh, Pakistan
Karachi, a metropolis of over 17 million people, is home to thousands of ChristiansImage: Mohammad Salman/DW

Portugal conquered Goa, the beach resort state on India's west coast, in 1510, after which a sizable portion of its population converted to Christianity — a majority of whom became Goan Catholics.

In the first half of the 19th century, a small number of Goan Christians relocated to the port city of Karachi, where they established businesses and gradually grew in number.

In 1886, the Goa-Portuguese Association was formed, after which the community made valuable contributions to Karachi's cityscape and socio-cultural life by setting up educational institutions and constructing breathtaking buildings.

One of them is the Goa-Portuguese Hall, or Goan Gymkhana, which was designed by the renowned Jewish architect Moses Somake, and constructed at the beginning of the 20th century.

Even after the partition of India in 1947 — when British India was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan — things didn't change much for Karachi's Goans.

But in the 1980s, their number began to decrease.    

Greener pastures

"[The] conquest by the Portuguese [of Goa] resulted in conversion of the locals to Christianity, much of it was forced conversion," Freddy Nazareth, a former advertising creative director, told DW.

St Joseph’s Convent School Saddar, Karachi, Province of Sindh, Pakistan
'Goans first came to Karachi as teachers with Catholic institutions when the British started trading in the 1850s'Image: Mohammad Salman/DW

"My grandfather was born in Karachi. My mother was a true Goan. My father was from Mangalore, India. He belonged to a family that migrated to Mangalore from Goa."

Nazareth explained that many of Karachi's Goan population left for economic reasons.

"The first wave which left the city to the UK was of the Anglo Indians, along with a lot of Goans. Subsequently, they moved to Montreal, Canada," he told DW.

Architect and town planner Arif Hasan had a slightly different take on the Goans' departure from the city.

"Goans first came to Karachi as teachers with Catholic institutions when the British started trading and established their businesses in Karachi in the 1850s," said Hassan, adding that many more arrived during the 1870s.

"Their schools and churches [St Patrick's Cathedral, Goan Union Hall and St Joseph's School etc] were built between the 1850s and the turn of the century," Hassan explained. 

The Goan Christians used to organize festivals around their neighborhoods in and around the Saddar area without any issues, even after the partition of India.

Pakistan: A Muslim caretaker's century-long church legacy

But in the late 1970s, people started objecting about the clothing worn by many Goan Christian women.

"It was during the Pakistan National Alliance [religious] movement in the late 1970s when objections were raised against the dresses that their women wore such as skirts and blouses that they started to leave," said Hassan. "I think they began to leave the city in the 1980s and '90s."

In the late 1970s, several Islamic parties rallied against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's government, which was subsequently overthrown by General Zia-ul Haq in a military coup. Haq, who ruled the country until the late 1980s, later started an Islamization drive in the country.

Opportunities abroad

"The population decreased because being a minority we have limited job opportunities," Christopher Vaz, a communications officer at a Karachi-based NGO, told DW. "Therefore a number of families have shifted to Canada, Australia and the US."

While it is difficult to ascertain how many members of the Goan Christian community live in Karachi, Delphine D'Mello, a homemaker who teaches English, suggested that it's in the thousands.

Her claim is supported by local businessman Menin Rodrigues. In his book "Footprints on the Sands of Time — Historical Recollections and Reflections, Goans of Pakistan (1820-2020)," he wrote that "Goans continue to live in Karachi, less than 10,000 odds, but are relatively quiescent."

Change in lifestyle

Nazareth highlighted some of the changes that have taken place in the Goan Christian community.

"In the old days women would be seen in frocks," he said. "But I went there two or three months back, and saw a majority of them wearing shalwar kameez," he added, refering to the traditional national dress worn in Pakistan.

Statue Saddar, Karachi, Province of Sindh, Pakistan
Goan Christians used to organize festivals in and around the Saddar area without any issues, even after the 1947 partition of IndiaImage: Mohammad Salman/DW

"Even at a Goan wedding I recently attended, there were women in shalwar kameez. They have stopped going to churches on a regular basis in frocks because it would invite [unwanted] comments."

Referring to traditions that are still in vogue, Vaz said, "A lot of our memories revolve around food. Most common of which is sorpotel, a meat-based dish with offal. It is basically a beef dish. Then there are certain wedding traditions, for instance, the roce ceremony in which we anoint the bride and groom with coconut oil and haldi (turmeric)."

D'Mello pointed out that their lifestyles have changed a lot.

"Previously we used to eat fish curry and rice, but now the younger generation is into fast food and going to restaurants," D'Mello said. "Unlike the oldies who were misers, they young ones like to spend lavishly."

Edited by: Keith Walker