KARACHI, PAKISTAN — Pakistani businessman Parvez Henry Gill says he was sleeping when God crashed into one of his dreams and gave him a job: find a way to protect Christians in Pakistan from violence and abuse. “I want you to do something different,” God told him.
That was four years ago, and Gill, a lifelong devout Christian, struggled for months with how to respond. Eventually, after more restless nights and more prayers, he awoke one morning with his answer: He would build one of the world’s largest crosses in one of the world’s most unlikely places.
“I said, ‘I am going to build a big cross, higher than any in the world, in a Muslim country,’ ” said Gill, 58. “It will be a symbol of God, and everybody who sees this will be worry-free.”
Now, in this overwhelmingly Muslim country, in the heart of a city where Islamist extremists control pockets of some neighborhoods, the 14-story cross is nearly complete.
It is being built at the entrance to Karachi’s largest Christian cemetery, towering over thousands of tombstones that are often vandalized. Once his cross looms over such acts of disrespect, Gill said, he hopes it can convince the 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, in southern Karachi, is 140 feet tall — higher than most office buildings in downtown Washington — 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.
But Gill says his cross at the Gora Qabristan Cemetery, which dates to the British colonial era, will be the largest in Asia.
The structure certainly will stand out in Pakistan, where Muslims account for more than 90 percent of the population. Christians make up just 1.5 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million people, according to the country’s last census. Christian leaders, who accuse the government of a deliberate undercount, say a more accurate figure is about 5.5 percent.
Whatever the number, Christians have been fleeing Pakistan in droves in recent years amid a wave of horrific attacks against them.
In 2013, more than 100 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a church in Peshawar. In November, a mob burned alive a Christian couple in a brick oven after the two were wrongly accused of burning a Koran. In March, suicide bombers killed some 15 people at two church services in Lahore. Last month, also in Lahore, a 14-year-old Christian boy was attacked and set on fire, according to local media reports.
Christians are also often targets of Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy law. The law forbids insults of any form — even by “innuendo” — against the Muslim prophet Muhammad and makes the crime punishable by death.
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 surrounding Sindh province. 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.
Although thousands of headstones have been neatly aligned over the past 150 years, a settlement has encroached on the cemetery, covering dozens of graves. Its residents toss garbage into the graveyard, and crosses and statues are frequently desecrated.
“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.
Gill’s 97-year-old father, Henry, owned wheat and cotton fields in Punjab. The Gill family has a long history of generosity, including helping thousands of poor children pay for education and covering the costs of more than 100 eye operations for the blind, Parvez Gill and Daniel said.
Initially, Gill wanted to be a pilot, but he had to drop out of flight school because of a medical condition. After he moved to Karachi in the mid-1980s, he began dabbling in real estate, the start of his lucrative career.
Gill said that he has not kept track of how much it’s costing to build the cross, and that he, his two adult sons and his father “all chip in” whenever a bill arrives.
Building the cross hasn’t been easy.
When 100 workers started construction last year, Gill didn’t tell them what they were building. As the outlines of the cross became apparent, about 20 Muslim workers quit in protest, he said.
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.
Some Karachi Christians worry that such a massive symbol of their faith will make the cemetery and their community even more vulnerable. Gill said his friends have expressed concern about his safety, urging him to frequently change his vehicles and travel routes.
Gill said he leaves questions about his personal safety to Psalm 91 of the Bible, which promises protection to believers.
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, Pakistani 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.
Nisar Medhi contributed to this report.