By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Signs of Christian persecution are all too visible in Pakistan this winter, from tents housing hungry Christian refugees to armed security standing guard atop a church roof as the faithful warily arrive for Sunday Eucharist.
But jarring, onerous conditions have not broken the spirit of the church in Pakistan, said the Rev. Patrick Augustine, who returned last month from visiting his native country. Christians there continue to worship, witness, and even plant churches, he said, albeit with little fanfare and much discretion.
“The Islamic militancy tries these attacks to frighten them to give up their faith and accept Islam,” said Canon Augustine, rector of Christ Church in La Crosse. “But it has not, in their knowledge, helped to convert one Christian to Islam. It has actually deepened their commitment to be a Christian … and to offer a message of peace and reconciliation in the capital of terrorism.”
In his travels, Augustine saw how the traumatized community of All Saints, Peshawar, has, by necessity, taken on a fortress atmosphere. Gone is All Saints’ weekly Sunday soup kitchen, which was attacked by suicide bombers in September 2013. The attacks killed 127 and injured more than 250. The church and its government protectors could not secure such a ministry, Augustine said.
Now a new six-foot wall topped with barbed wire surrounds the church in a crowded part of the old city. Members of the congregation keep watch at entrances. Those who enter must pass under cameras and through metal detectors. Armed guards keep watch on rooftops.
Inside, however, signs of hope stir. Nearly 400 worshipers gathered when Augustine preached. That’s down from 700 before the attacks but up from fewer than 100 in the immediate aftermath. The congregation prayed, as it does every week, for those who attack local Christian and Muslim communities. During the week, clergy sometimes host interfaith gatherings of religious leaders. They also walk the neighborhood, visiting with shopkeepers and being visible in a low-key way.
“Given the security situation, there are not many ministries they can do because that area is prone to Al Qaeda activities,” Augustine said. “But they try to reach out to their neighbors.”
Violence was not far away. Word spread one January morning that a Diocese of Peshawar high school in Bannu had been overrun by a mob with guns and machetes in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Augustine made the four-hour trip with the Bishop of Peshawar and five local clergy to visit and comfort the rattled community.
Soldiers found a bomb hidden at the entrance of a Christian neighborhood during Augustine’s visit. They removed it and no one was hurt, but anxiety ran high as he prayed with and for Christians in Bannu.
“The plan was to explode the bomb and kill Christians in the Christian colony,” Augustine said. “They were all shaken and very afraid. Anything can happen during the night.”
In Bannu, he found 200 Christian and Shiite Muslim families from the countryside living in tents inside a diocesan compound. They had left their homes in Waziristan, an Al Qaeda stronghold, where they had faced discrimination from Islamic relief organizations and struggled to survive, according to Augustine.
Inside the compound, one family of 11 had run out of food. Augustine authorized $500 from his congregation’s gift to the Diocese of Peshawar to supplement the family’s ration.
Later in his trip, he visited the region of Azad Kashmir, where a Christian family offered its land as a site for worship and a cemetery. It will be the only church in the region. Christ Church, La Crosse, is collecting donations to help build it and support other ministries in Pakistan.
And he found signs of hope in the small city of Mardan. The government was helping to rebuild St. Luke’s Church, which attackers burned down in 2012. He was there on a Friday, when the city was effectively shut down for Muslim prayers. About 20 young adults gathered at the church in the afternoon, as they do every Friday, taking their seats on the ground. There they studied Scripture, prayed, and sang hymns.
“They were not pastors, they were not bishops, they were just high school and university college students,” Augustine said. “Somehow all these situations of persecution and challenges to their faith have made them even stronger.”
Image: A crowd gathers outside of All Saints Church, Peshawar