Transgender Pakistanis find solace in a church of their own

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) - Pakistan's Christian transgender people, who are often ridiculed, abused and bullied, say they found peace and comfort in their own church.
Shunned by other churches, they can raise their voices here.
During a recent church service, transgender women with scarfs streaked over their long hair were reading the Bible and singing hymns loudly to the rhythm of a drum played by a transgender elder in church.
The church, called the First Church of the Eunuchs, is the only one for transgender Christians in Pakistan. "Eunuch" is a term that is widely used in South Asia to refer to transgender women, although some consider it derogatory. Church pastor and co-founder Ghazala Shafique said she chose the name to make a point clear and extensively quoted verses from the Bible that said eunuchs are favored by God.
In Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, on the coast of the Arabian Sea, it sits in the shadow of the towering brownstone cathedral, where the community doesn't feel welcome.
"People looked at us with eyes that laughed at us," said Nena Soutrey, a transgender woman whose life has been a tragedy of beatings, bullying and abuse.
“Nobody wants to sit near us and some even say we are an abomination. But we are not. We are human beings. We are human beings. What is the matter with us? That's us, ”she said with a bright red scarf over her shoulders.
Transgender women and men of all faiths in deeply conservative Pakistan are often publicly bullied, humiliated, or even subjected to violence, despite the government officially recognizing them as the third gender. Often denied by their families, they resort to begging and work as wedding dancers. They are often sexually abused and end up as sex workers.
Transgender Christians are a minority within a minority in the predominantly Muslim country. Christians and other religious minorities are often discriminated against and feel their place is poor. While the community can find mutual support, transgender Christians are the most likely to be rejected.
In churches they are told to sit in the back and sometimes not to dress as women. Arsoo, a transgender woman, said she hopped back and forth in churches with separate women's and men's sections, instructed by the women to sit with the men and by the men to sit with the women.
"I was in such a confusing situation," she said.
Arzoo said she loved singing hymns or reciting the Bible, but in the churches she was in she was asked not to sing.
"I would try to move up, but the others thought it would be a shame if we did participate," she said. "I don't understand why they feel this way. We are also human beings, born of our parents. Just as God created them, God created us too."
In their new church, Pastor Shafique celebrates the nearly three-hour service, but it is the transgender congregation that is taking the lead.
The church is in the courtyard in front of Shafique's house. Colorful carpets give the cement yard warmth. Light blue plastic chairs, many of which are dirty and cracked, serve as benches. It is located on the same extensive grounds as the cathedral and is protected by high walls and a steel gate.
But there is no doubt that the humble church is theirs: a giant six-foot billboard with a large cross proudly proclaims in English: "The First Church for Eunuchs". In an underlying Urdu translation, the term "Transgender Pakistanis" is used more often for itself: "Khwaja Sira".
Shafique, a rare pastor in Pakistan, was first approached by an unexpected lawyer, a Muslim - Neesha Rao, Pakistan's only transgender lawyer. Rao proudly recounts how she spent 10 years asking on the street to enter law school.
Rao said she was moved by her Christian transgender friends, who were often afraid to proclaim their faith, feared further abuse, but found no consolation among other Christians either.
"I'm a Muslim child and a Muslim transgender, but I had a pain in my heart for the Christian transgender," Rao said while attending a Friday night church service. She visits every week, she said, and stood behind the worshipers.
Shafique is part of the Church of Pakistan, a united Protestant church of Anglican, Methodist and Reformed churches. So far, their efforts with the hierarchy to recognize their church have been rejected.
“They tell me there are theological problems,” Shafique said. "I'm still waiting to hear what these theological problems are."
She is harshly critical of clergymen who would prefer their transgender congregations to be invisible or all to stay away together, and of parents who reject their transgender children.
"Elders in the Church have told me that they are not clean ... that they are not righteous," she said. “We reject them ... and then they get so broken and then they get into all bad things. I say we are to blame, the church and the parents. "
The recognition of a third gender by Pakistan was a remarkable step for the conservative country. For many, it was life changing because it enabled them to purchase IDs that were needed for everything from driving licenses to opening a bank account.
"This is a big step," said Shafique. But she added that it doesn't change the settings. Parents often refuse to give their transgender children the birth certificates they need to get ID or forbid them to use their family names.
For Soutrey, the Church is a refuge from a life of pain.
Tears welled up and her voice cracked as she recounted how her mother died when she was just 12 and her brothers beat and insulted her. Eventually she fled to live on the streets and found acceptance in the transgender community. She stopped going out at night because of harassment and abuse.
"The first thing I want to say is that nobody has to suffer like transgender people suffer," Soutrey said between tears. "People treat us worse than dogs," she said, even in the mainstream churches she has been to.
"This church is important to us because we are free and happy to sit here and worship the God who made us."
The associate press writer Tsarar Khan from Islamabad contributed to this report.

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