In Combustible, Muslim Karachi, A Christian Erects A 140-Foot Cross : Parallels Parvez Henry Gill says the cross is intended as a "symbol of peace." But in a city where sectarian violence is common, the cross could become a target. Gill acknowledges that death threats are common.
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In Combustible, Muslim Karachi, A Christian Erects A 140-Foot Cross

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In Combustible, Muslim Karachi, A Christian Erects A 140-Foot Cross

In Combustible, Muslim Karachi, A Christian Erects A 140-Foot Cross

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In some countries, you can be killed because of your religion. That happens in Pakistan often. NPR's Philip Reeves has been to see someone who was pushing back by changing the skyline of a city.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This is a story about a man who had a dream. In that dream, the man met God, the Christian God, and, he says, God told him build a cross in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

PARVEZ HENRY GILL: I feel, in a dream, God saying, do something for the poor and hopeless Christian people who are living in crisis.

REEVES: That's the man. He's Parvez Henry Gill. A lot of people might be inclined to ignore an order like that, but Gill's now actually building the cross that he says God asked for in that dream. He's doing so in Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, a city blighted by communal strife.

REEVES: So it's 140 feet from here.

GILL: No, no, no, from here - from ground level.

REEVES: From ground level, OK - right there.

GILL: From ground level.

REEVES: You heard correctly. Gill's cross is 140 feet high. He says it's the tallest cross in Asia. Wrapped in bamboo scaffolding, it stands just inside the gate of Karachi's biggest Christian cemetery and looms over the surrounding area.

I'm now 3 or 400 yards away from the cross, and it rises up into the hot, steamy, gray skies over Karachi. Pigeons are wheeling overhead. The odd kite is circling above us, and all around there are these white marble tombstones.

Christians are a tiny percentage of Pakistan's 190 million population. Islamist extremists have attacked them and bombed their churches. The latest big attack was in March. Suicide bombers killed 15 people in two churches in the city of Lahore. Gill is building his huge cross using concrete and iron.

Would you say it's bulletproof?

GILL: (Laughter) Maybe, but not a challenge to anyone - a symbol of peace and symbol of hope.

REEVES: A symbol of peace and hope.

GILL: Yeah, for those Christians who are worried and hopeless in here.

REEVES: Gill is a Pakistani businessman. He's 58. He says he and his family are funding the construction of the cross. That, though, is about all that Gill is willing publicly to reveal about his life. He says he's been receiving threats.

GILL: Yeah, so many threats, and on Facebook, so many problems.

REEVES: Religion is such a sensitive issue in Karachi that Gill, at first, didn't tell his Muslim laborers what they were building. They only realized it was a giant Christian cross when it began to look like one. About 20 of them walked off the job. In a nearby alley, a group of Muslim men while away the day gossiping and smoking. They've been watching the cross rise up and up. They insist they're not troubled by this addition to the skyline by Karachi's Christian community.

SALMAN SHAREEF: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: "It's their religion and their graveyard. We've no problem with the cross," says Salman Shareef, an off-duty cop. He says the cross isn't quite what he expected.

SHAREEF: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: Shareef says he thought it would only be about 10 feet high. If you look around though, there's plenty of evidence of the city's underlying communal tensions. The cemetery wall bears one of the Islamist extremists' favorite slogans. The punishment for blasphemy is death, it says. Within the graveyard, a woman's tomb from the British Colonial era stands amid a trash tossed at it from the homes next door. Gill seems unhappy as he gazes at this scene but insists he isn't alarmed.

GILL: Because of our trust in God. He will save and help. And everything comes from God. God - He will save us.

REEVES: Then suddenly, just for a second or two, this devout man seems anxious.

GILL: Pray for me. I request to all just pray for me.

REEVES: Gill hopes his workers will complete the finishing touches to his cross in a few months. He wants to hold a big opening celebration and says he plans to invite the Pope, Britain's Queen and Hillary Clinton. Remember, he is a dreamer. Philip Reeves, NPR News Karachi.

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