By Mark Michael

The Rt. Rev. Azad Marshall, a leader in theological education with broad experience in the wider Anglican Communion, was elected to a three-year term as moderator of the Church of Pakistan at its triennial synod on May 14. He began his ministry by addressing the deep concerns many church members have for safety, living in a country recently ranked as the world’s most violent for Christians.

Bishop Marshall will continue as Bishop of Raiwind, a post he has held since 2016, as he leads the pan-Protestant denomination, which is a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Methodist Council, as well as the Anglican Communion. He succeeds Bishop Humphrey Peters of Peshawar in the role.

“I’m humbled by the confidence shown in me by the synod members and I look forward to working closely with them to address the challenges facing the Church of Pakistan and the community at large,” Marshall said in remarks published in Lahore’s The Nation. “Pakistani Christians are facing extraordinary challenges and it is important that the church leadership engages with the government and other stakeholders to find concrete solutions to these problems.”

Marshall added that he hopes to work closely with the government to “remove negative perceptions about my country” in the Christian world. “Issues like forced conversion and underage marriages of minority girls, misuse of the blasphemy laws, rising intolerance in our society, poverty etc. bring a bad name to Pakistan and affect the efforts being made to project a positive image of the country,” he said.

In its annual report on worldwide Christian persecution, the religious freedom charity Open Doors USA ranked Pakistan as the nation “where Christians face the most violence.” The charity estimates that 309 Christians were martyred in the country between November 2019 and October 2020, and that about 1000 Christian girls were forced into marriage with Muslim men. The country’s severe blasphemy law, which criminalizes insulting the prophet Muhammad, is sometimes invoked against Christians in unrelated disputes.

Asia Bibi, a member of the Church of Pakistan, was at the center of the most famous blasphemy case in Pakistan’s recent history. She was accused of blasphemy in 2009 after drawing water from a well in her village and then offering it to a group of Muslim women to drink. An angry crowd gathered, perceiving a slight, and when she refused to convert to Islam, she was arrested by the authorities and sentenced to death by hanging. She was eventually acquitted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2018 after an international movement for her release that included appeals by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, as well as the Anglican Consultative Council.

Bishop Marshall is a native Pakistani, and studied for the ministry both at Gujranwala Theological Seminary and at the London School of Theology. He worked as a missionary in Iran before the Islamic Revolution, distributing Christian literature, and established Church Foundation Seminars, a ministry focused on training pastors and teachers. Later, he helped to found Prince of Peace Library and Center in Shanti Nagar, Pakistan, an institute focused on Christian-Muslim reconciliation; as well as Lahore Theological College, a seminary focused on training men and women for missionary service.

He began his ordained ministry in 1987 at Lahore’s historic St. Andrew’s Church, and was consecrated as a bishop by the Church of Pakistan just seven years later to serve Urdu-speaking congregations in the Middle East. Approximately 4 million Pakistanis live in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, where they serve as an important source of labor in the oil industry.

Marshall was made an associate bishop in the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East while engaged in this ministry, and assumed responsibility for episcopal oversight of the tiny and beleaguered Church in Iran in 2003, and became its sixth bishop in 2009. He also was elected to a term on the Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council in 2009. Marshall has also written several books and a confirmation preparation course.

Like his predecessor, Marshall has been a supporter of the Anglican realignment movement, and spoke at the 2014 meeting of the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church of North America, as well as a GAFCON conference held in 2019 in Dubai.

The Church of Pakistan, which celebrated a half-century of ministry last year, is one of the four united Protestant churches of the Indian subcontinent. It brought together Anglicans, Scottish Presbyterians, United Methodists, and Lutherans. The church has eight dioceses and about 500,000 members.