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Christians continue work in Pakistan, despite hostility

 The Church of Pakistan's Diocese of Peshawar runs economic development programs that include 24 sewing centers. The church is an official partner of The United Methodist Church. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Diocese of Peshawar.

A UMNS Report
By Rebecca C. Asedillo *

May 30, 2007  

What does it mean to be a Christian minority in a post 9/11 Islamic society?

Christians in Pakistan "live and move and have their being" in a context of increasing uncertainty. Sometimes that environment turns hostile.

  • On Oct. 28, 2001, in Bahawalpur, Multan province, a congregation sharing worship space at a Roman Catholic Church was attacked by armed men. Sixteen people died, including several children.
  • On Aug. 5, 2002, armed gunmen attacked the Murree Christian School in the Himalayan foothills, about 30 miles north of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, killing six adults but leaving the students unharmed.
  • On Nov. 12, 2005, a mob, angry at a perceived insult against the Qur'an (later found to be baseless), set on fire three churches, two houses of priests, a convent, one high school and the houses of three Christian families in a place called Sangla Hill, not far from the city of Lahore. Almost 400 Christian families had to evacuate their homes before the situation could be put under control.
  • On Feb. 6, 2006, following the publication of the Danish cartoon that many Muslims saw as ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, mobs with sticks, chains and stones attacked institutions run by the church, including Edwardes College, Elizabeth Girls School and College, St. Pauls Church and School, the Mission Hospital and the Pennell High School and College in the Northwest Frontier Province.
  • On May 16, 2007, BBC News reported that the small Christian community in a place called Charsadda, also in the northwest province, was threatened with violence if its members did not become Muslims.

Despite the conditions, the church's work continues. 

The Northwest Frontier Province is an area where Christian communities experience an extraordinary level of tension and sense of vulnerability.

The Diocese of Peshawar, whose territory coincides with the province, is one of the eight dioceses that make up the Church of Pakistan. This diocese originally belonged to the Anglican tradition, but with the merger of the Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans (Norwegian) and Scottish Presbyterians in 1970, it is now a part of the united Church of Pakistan, an official partner with The United Methodist Church. 

Servanthood ministry

The catastrophic earthquake of Oct. 8, 2005, in Pakistan killed an estimated 86,000 people. The diocese responded to the emergency by adopting a cluster of six villages in an area known as Pateka. Besides the immediate response to provide food, clothing, shelter and medical aid right after the earthquake, the diocese is now involved in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the villages. It facilitated the creation of a community-based organization to address livelihood recovery, health, education, water and sanitation, house repair and other communal needs. 

Trust among Christians and Muslims in these communities has been developing, according to Ashar Dean, the diocesan staff overseeing communications and evaluation of the program. "If we give them respect, they will give us respect," he said.

In the northwest province, the majority of the people are Pashtuns (or Pathans), while most Christians are Punjabi descendants of the camp followers of the British Army during the late 19th century. In a society that has traditionally looked down on Christians not only for their adherence to what is perceived as a "foreign/western religion" but also for the fact that a majority of them come from the lower castes, the development of trust is a significant achievement.

Seventy-five-year-old Mohammad Ayub, a respected elder of Pateka testified, "During the relief and recovery phase, the diocesan staff maintained our self-respect, dignity and honor. At no point did they let us feel we were dependent on them…"

"In interfaith dialogue, we try to make our Muslim neighbors understand that we too are Pakistanis," Dean said. In the past, he explained, Pakistani Christians had followed the isolationist model of the British, who did not interact with the majority community. This is now changing. "I want the two societies - Muslims and Christians - to come together."

Women's ministries

Some of the women of the diocese discussed the low social status accorded to women in Pakistan where, according to Human Rights Watch, victims of sexual assault are deemed guilty of illegal sex rather than victims of unlawful violence or abuse. For this so-called "honor" crime, many women are imprisoned, and some are even killed.

"We are living in a country where the role of women is not up to the mark," said Reena Patrick of the diocesan women's desk. "Women are degraded and are deprived of many things in life."

However, "women now have more courage to speak," asserted a member of the diocesan women's group, which gathered for a reception with a guest from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. The women's association holds seminars on women's health, legal rights and HIV/AIDS. It ministers among women prisoners who, cultural norms dictate, could not be visited by men.

While often facing obstacles in their pursuit for education and jobs within their society, the youth of the diocese are reaching out in a program for interfaith dialogue called "Youth Faith Friends." The young people are also very much aware of how suspicion of Christians has increased since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.  "Because of Bush's war on Iraq, our churches have been attacked," one of the young people said.

The youth of the diocese are active in the Pateka villages, organizing sports and creative activities for the children there. They also continue to serve and strengthen their own networks through youth sports festivals, career counseling programs and participating in regional ecumenical youth events. They dream of building a center with a gymnasium and a library where they could organize discussion groups, sports events and other activities.

Education ministry

The first school in the Northwest Frontier Province was established by the church in 1853 - Edwardes School in Kohati Gate, Peshawar. Since then, the diocese has opened 12 more schools, three colleges, two hostels, a computer center and a Vocational Training Center.

The schools are highly regarded by the majority Muslim community for the quality education they provide at nominal charges, but sometimes they become targets of extremist elements. In February, reports that female suicide bombers might target schools sent officials scurrying around to beef up security arrangements.    

Health needs are great in this part of Pakistan, but the resources are few. The mission hospital run by the diocese in Peshawar has obviously seen better days, with its antiquated equipment and decaying infrastructure, but its outpatient department continues to serve children with tuberculosis.

Another hospital is in a place called Bannu, a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalists. "Why are we there, where every minute of your life could be your last?" asked the bishop of the diocese, Bishop Munawar "Mano" Rumalshah. The answer is obvious: the hospital is there to serve the needs of the people in the community. The bishop has put out a call for volunteer doctors and other health professionals to serve in this ministry.

The diocese also runs literacy and economic development programs, such as job apprenticeships training in tailoring, carpentry, computer repair and welding, and has sewing sites in 24 centers.
More information is available on the Diocese of Peshawar's Web site, at www.peshawardiocese.org.

*Asedillo is an executive with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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