Four years ago, Christian businessman Henry Gill wanted to find a way to protect Christians in Pakistan from abuse and violence.
He then decided to build one of the world’s biggest crosses in the most unlikely places.
“I said, ‘I am going to build a big cross, higher than any in the world, in a Muslim country,’ ” 58-year-old Gill told The Washington Post. “It will be a symbol of God, and everybody who sees this will be worry-free.”
The 14-storey cross is nearly complete in the heart of Karachi.
The cross is being built at the entrance to Karachi’s largest Christian cemetery: Gora Qabristan, towering over thousands of tombstones that are often vandalized. Once the cross looms over such acts of disrespect, Gill hopes it will convince members of Pakistan’s persecuted Christian minority that someday their lives will get better.
“I want Christian people to see it and decide to stay here,” said Gill, who started the project about a year ago.
The cross is 140 feet tall and includes a 42-foot crosspiece. It isn’t the world’s tallest; that distinction is claimed by the Great Cross in St. Augustine, Fla., which is about 208 feet tall, although the Millennium Cross in Macedonia is said to tower 217 feet above ground. Crosses approaching 200 feet also have been constructed in Illinois, Louisiana and Texas.
However, Gill says that the cross will be the largest in Asia.
“The challenges facing Christians in Pakistan, many of whom live in slums and are relegated to working menial jobs, are particularly acute in rural areas. That has driven more of them to seek security and support in Karachi,” said Bishop Sadiq Daniel, the leader of the Church of Pakistan in Sindh.
“About 1 million of Karachi’s estimated 22 million inhabitants are Christian,” the Protestant leader said.
But Gill said that “every few weeks” he hears from Christians who plan to move out of Karachi because of threats. The signs of that abuse are obvious at the cemetery.
“Look, someone just came and broke this statue of the Virgin Mary,” Gill said recently, as he bent over a shattered statue marking the grave of someone who died in 1959.
He said he hopes the cross encourages more Christians to remain in Pakistan, perhaps even achieving the same success that his family found.
When the construction began last year, Gill didn’t inform the workers what they were working on. When the cross became apparent, about 20 Muslim workers quit in protest.
But today, Gill noted, Muslims and Christians are working together to complete the project.
One Muslim man, Mohammad Ali, works on the cross 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Ali referred to the cross as a “work of God” and said he is volunteering out of loyalty to the Gill family.
“Henry has supported me well over the years, helping with the birth of my [seven] children, with medicine, their education, so I don’t need a daily wage,” said Ali, 40.
As for the cross, Gill called it “bulletproof,” noting that it sits on a 20-foot underground base. “Tons and tons of steel, iron and cement,” he said as he looked up toward the top of the structure.
“If anyone tries to hit this cross, they will not succeed.”
Sometime later this year, after the cross is polished and a lighting system is installed, Gill plans to hold a large celebration to inaugurate it. He said he wants to invite Pope Francis, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Queen Elizabeth II of England and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“But I don’t know if they will come,” he added.
He said he is confident, however, that Pakistan’s beleaguered Christians will show up.
“Upon seeing it, they are going to appreciate this job,” Gill said.