The archaeological site of Sirkap in Punjab province is today considered by many Pakistani Christians as one of the main pilgrimage destinations in the country. Every year, on July 4, several thousand faithful come to the ruins of Taxila, on the site of Sirkap, to celebrate the feast of the apostle St. Thomas. The latter, according to Christian tradition, passed through the site on his way to India, to preach the Gospel before the court of King Gondophares. Yet protected by Pakistani law and classified as World Heritage by Unesco, the site remains too neglected. Its renovation was just one of the topics discussed at the meeting on July 4, between a delegation of the Pakistan Episcopal Conference and Prime Minister Imran Khan.

For twenty years, Abdul Rehman tells of the visit of the apostle Saint Thomas to the archaeological site of Sirkap, in the province of Punjab. "Christian pilgrims, pastors, priests, foreign tourists and history students are among the most numerous visitors," says the 47-year-old tour guide. "Among them, there are also many Muslims who claim that their prayers have been heard, even if none of them will proclaim it publicly. "Abdul Rehman is one of four staff members of the archeology department of Pakistan province, based in Sirkap, where the Taxila ruins, dating from the second century AD, are located. Taxila is known as the center of the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Ghandara (500 BC to 200 AD). Archaeologists have discovered the location of several Buddhist monasteries in Sirkap, as well as temples belonging to Jainism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. According to tradition, St. Thomas passed by Taxila on his way to India. He would have preached before the court of King Gondophares. A work dating from the early third century AD, known as the Acts of St. Thomas, was discovered in 1822 in Syria. The text affirms that at the saint's passage, the king gave him money by ordering him to build a royal palace; St. Thomas, on the other hand, would have given all the money in alms. According to the text, when the king discovered it, the latter would have ordered that the saint be burned alive. But the king's brother, named Gad, died shortly afterwards and miraculously returned to life. The king then forgave the saint and converted to Christianity, with all the inhabitants of his capital. Today, the site of Sirkap is protected since a law passed by the Parliament of Pakistan in 1975. Sirkap is also classified as World Heritage by Unesco.

The Taxila Cross discovered in 1935

In 1935, a farmer plowing a field near the ruins discovered a cross, which was later presented to the Anglican bishop of Lahore. The famous "Taxila Cross" is now preserved in the Anglican Cathedral of the Resurrection, in the capital of Punjab. Sirkap is still one of the main pilgrimage sites for Pakistani Christians. Thus, on July 3, each year, several thousand of them come to celebrate the feast of St. Thomas at Sirkap, to pray and light candles. Many baptisms of adults and children are celebrated there. The ruins of Taxila remain one of the most endangered archaeological sites, according to the World Heritage Fund, which supports the preservation of historic architectural sites around the world."Four of our colleagues were fired this year. We do our best to clean the site and get rid of weeds and debris, while ensuring safety, " says Abdul Rehman.

Sanctuary project

The renovation of the site was one of the main themes discussed at the meeting, on July 4, between a delegation of the Pakistan Episcopal Conference and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Joseph Arshad, Archbishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi and President of the Episcopal Conference of Pakistan, proposed building a shrine in Sirkap and paying property taxes in exchange for control of the land. The Prime Minister promised to raise the subject with his cabinet. For his part, the Minister of Human Rights and Minority Affairs of Punjab, Ejaz Alam Augustine, welcomes the project of building a chapel and a park in Sirkap. "This project, to be launched in October, will strengthen the community and protect our heritage,"he said on August 17 in Lahore. "The Prime Minister is very interested in promoting religious tourism. "

(Source: Églises d'Asie - le 05/09/2019, With Ucanews, Taxila)