By Patrick Augustine
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 116:15)
On Sunday, January 30, the Rev. William Siraj was driving home after preaching at a church in the Gulbahar district near Peshawar, Pakistan. This was a mission church planted by All Saints Church Khoti Gate in Peshawar.
It is a region where Christians have been subject to violent attacks. More than 120 people were killed in a suicide bombing at All Saints Church in September 2013. Siraj’s son-in-law was among those who died that day. Since then, the church has been called Shaheedan-E-All Saints Church, meaning “Martyrs and All Saints Church.”
Siraj led services there every Sunday since the church was started more than 10 years ago. He was passionate about sharing the Word of God. His favorite hymn was Anjeel Ko Phelana Ye Kam Humara Hai (Spreading the Word of God is Our Work).
Siraj had had an accident on Saturday and was not feeling well. On Sunday morning his wife had asked him not to go to church but to rest at home. He told his wife, “Please don’t stop me from going, because I have prepared, and I have to preach the sermon.”
Siraj and a colleague, the Rev. Patrick Naeem, were driving home together, when gunmen on a motorcycle shot at them through the car window. Siraj was shot in the head and died on the spot. Naeem was miraculously unharmed as a bullet merely passed through his clothes.
Naveed Walter, president of Human Rights Focus Pakistan, said the gunmen appear to be from an Islamist group. The border of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is only a few dozen kilometers from Peshawar.
The faith of the persecuted church arises from holding on to the cross of Jesus Christ. The daughter of William Siraj and widow of another martyr said, “I praise God and am so proud that I am the daughter of a martyr and the widow of another martyr.”
His brother Wilson Siraj testified to his faith, “I am very humbled and I praise and thank God that I belong to a family of martyrs.” He has lost five relatives as martyrs including his brother William.
One wonders where such faith comes from as they face daily threats of death, persecution, and insults. The principal reason for their living faith is that Jesus is their risen Lord. On the cross, he has defeated the powers and principalities of death and evil. On Good Friday 2,000 years ago, a revolution began and continues now through modern day disciples of Jesus that the cross is the “Power of God.”
Siraj fully understood that on the cross Jesus had given him life by his death. He understood the call of Jesus, “As the Father has sent me, so I’m sending you” (John 20:21). Siraj’s martyrdom is a living testimony for us all to be faithful witnesses. St. Paul writes to Timothy, “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8).
The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church. “This martyrdom is another step towards the survival of Christians in this country. The local church faces many challenges. We are very sad,” said Church of Pakistan Bishop Humphrey Sarfraz Peters of Peshawar.
The Church continues to be the faithful disciples of Jesus and “to lift high the cross whatever befalls”: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20)
The Rt. Rev. Patrick Augustine, a native of Pakistan and former rector of Christ Church in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is a missionary bishop in the Diocese of Bor, Episcopal Church of South Sudan. Parts of this account are drawn from a tribute published by the Barnabas Fund, an organization that supports persecuted Christians throughout the world. Wilson Siraj, the brother of the deceased priest, serves the Barnabas fund as a regional coordinator for Pakistan and other south Asian countries.