KARACHI, Pakistan (Christian Examiner) – A Christian businessman living in the heart of one of the most densely populated Muslim cities in the world has erected a 14-story cross of steel and concrete "as a symbol of God," the Washington Post has reported.
The cross, expected to be completed this summer, is a long-term project of 58-year-old real estate mogul Parvez Henry Gill. While not the tallest cross in the world, it will be the tallest in Asia and will loom over Karachi's largest Christian cemetery, a frequent target of vandals who desecrate Christian graves and statuary.
According to the Washington Post, Gill said he was told by God in a dream four years ago to "do something different." He wrestled with various ideas for months, but finally settled on the cross to call attention to the abuse the Christian minority in Pakistan faces.
"I said, 'I am going to build a big cross, higher than any in the world, in a Muslim country,' Gill told the newspaper. "It will be a symbol of God, and everybody who sees this will be worry-free."
How do you build a 140-foot-tall cross in the middle of an Islamic country? For Gill, the answer was to avoid telling everyone what he was doing.
Gill, who is from a well-known Christian family that has employed both Christian and Muslim workers, left the construction crew in the dark as they were building the structure. According to the Washington Post, once it became apparent the structure was a cross, 20 of the Muslim workers resigned.
Some, however, stayed on citing their long-term relationships with the Gill family. One, Mohammad Ali, works on the cross 14 hours a day, seven days a week. He referred to the cross as a "work of God," the newspaper said.
"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.
When completed, the cross overlooking the Gora Qabristan Cemetery will likely attract the attention of militant Islamists in the city. While Gill avoids daring extremists to knock it down, he says its sturdy construction (a concrete base 20 feet deep, steel reinforced construction) makes it "bulletproof."
"If anyone tries to hit this cross, they will not succeed," Gill told the Washington Post.
After the cross is completed, Gill said it will be polished and lit so it can be seen from a great distance, whether night or day. He also told the newspaper he would like to hold a dedication ceremony with Pope Francis, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Queen Elizabeth II and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as guests.
Christians in Pakistan, who make up only 1.5 percent of the country's population of 180 million, have suffered brutal persecution at the hands of Islamists in recent years. Strict blasphemy laws make even perceived offenses the cause of beatings and murder. Suicide bombings are common. Persecution often comes in the form of desecration of Christian graves like those in the Gora Qabristan Cemetery.
Most of Pakistan's Christians, about 1 million of them, live in Karachi near where the cross is being built. Persistent poverty, persecution and a lack of employment opportunities have caused those who are able to flee to leave the country. Gill said he hopes the cross will serve as motivation for Christians to stay in the country as a witness to other.
"I want Christian people to see it and decide to stay here," Gill told the Washington Post.
Asked how much the cross has cost, Gill told the newspaper he hasn't kept a record of costs. He and his sons simply pay the bills as they come in. And he said he is not worried about safety and security for himself or the cross. He regularly prays Psalm 91, in which God promises protection for believers, he told the newspaper.
America's tallest cross is in St. Augustine, Florida where at 208 feet high it marks the spot where it says "in 1565 the cross of Christianity was first planted in what is now the United States."