Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Pakistani Christians: "One Must Keep Living"

"One must keep living", she said.
One must. How else would you cope in a society where terrorist attacks are a daily threat at any time and place and true security is only for the rich? How does one dress for terror? Simply put, the method of "keeping on keeping on" is what Pakistani Christians and Muslims both face these days. To be a Christian here though, is to be the minority and to risk your life and livelihood on a daily basis. Every Christian that I met asked me to ask you, directly, for your prayers. Faith is fervent here and prayers are held for us as a country and as a church - on a regular basis.
Photo by Caroline Carson
This image, taken on the edges of the city of Lahore, struck me more than any other from my recent visit to Pakistan. The Tower of Pakistan, often a site of political rallies and protests, stands imprisoned behind high walls and barbed wire. It is a main symbol of the country, representing past glories of a freer time and the hope and strength for a bright future. It is located in a large, slowly-redeveloping park and is, as with many venues, barred from general entry and it's grandeur held captive in the country's current trepidation.
A little nervously, I left the US the day after Easter - the day after the bombing in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park where a suicide bomber killed 74 people. This included at least 42 Christians and injured about 300 more, primarily women and children. The Pakistani Taliban’s Jamat-ul-Ahrar faction claimed responsibility for the attack. They also stated that they deliberately targeted Christians who were out enjoying a relaxing Easter afternoon. 

So, why Pakistan? Why did I go and why now? 

At the Episcopal General Convention in 2015, the Moderator, or Presiding Bishop of the Church of Pakistan, I met the Rt. Rev'd Samuel Azariah and he invited me to visit Pakistan and teach music, give some of my NASA Solar System Ambassador presentations in the schools, and to learn about the Diocese of Raiwind and the Church of Pakistan. While I did do all of these things, my visit gained an additional new focus in the light of the recent bombing and the fact that I was an American, coming to Pakistan against all US Dept. of State travel warnings at a time of heightened concerns. 

I briefly considered not going, but then considered what that would do to my sense of call and confidence. Because there are not very many Americans in Pakistan, I felt that having this chance to make a good connection was a priceless opportunity. We have the chance as travelers (different sometimes than tourists) to stand up to society's fears, bust through stereotypes, create goodwill, and see beyond the cover of the book. It helps us see life for the beautiful, diverse, wonder that it is. I also felt very called to be there, even more so after the bombing. Pakistani Christians have been through so many bombings. I wanted to personally deliver the message that we also desire their peace and safety. I wanted to reach out and deliver messages of friendship, perhaps creating a link between our two dioceses. Having traveled to 32 countries so far, I understand that Americans are not always viewed in positive light. 

Even if I am one drop in a giant bucket, I'd like to work on changing that image

I asked our schoolchildren at St. Paul's Episcopal in New Orleans to make messages and cards that I could bring with me to Pakistan. I felt that some of the families affected would appreciate these cards, but even more so after the Easter Day bombing. My new Pakistani friends in the Junior Church in the Diocese of Raiwind made some cards in reciprocation and I'll deliver them to our church this Sunday!
Once in Pakistan, the word on the street about the bombing was somewhat different. There is active debate as to whether not the Taliban group was specifically targeting Christians and during my two weeks in Lahore, I witnessed a general sense arising that the goal was to target children, Muslim and Christian alike. Recently, women and children have been used more for suicide bombings. There is speculation that the Easter day bomber may have been a woman. Many Pakistanis felt that this bombing was more associated with backlash from the high-profiled case of Mumtaz Qadri, a former policeman whose recent hanging for murder of Salmaam Taseer had enraged a section of the Muslim community. Taseer had spoken out against Pakistan's Blasphemy law. The week after Easter, there were massive protests in Islamabad that were related to this Blasphemy case. Security was compromised enough that I could not make the visit to Islamabad and Taxila, an important archaeological site.

When I arrived in Lahore, Bishop Azariah had already held one meeting of local Christian leaders and had now called a meeting of interfaith religious leaders to discuss how to cope with recent terror events, how to move forward, and how to make an active difference that would reach beyond words. The Church of Pakistan had stepped immediately into action.

Basic information about the Diocese of Raiwind, directly from their website states: 
" The Church of Pakistan is the result of the union of four denominations: Anglicans, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterians (Scottish), which took place in 1970. Initially, there were four dioceses in the Church of Pakistan, i.e. Karachi, Multan, Lahore and Sialkot, but in 1980, through a special resolution and for better ministerial work, four new dioceses were created: Hyderabad, Raiwind, Faisalabad and Peshawar. There is a presiding bishop for the Church of Pakistan who is known as the Moderator and has responsibility for a three year term. The united Church of Pakistan is the second largest church in the country after the Roman Catholic Church."
What isn't on their website, but is reflected on their facebook page, is that they are extremely active in peace building and often hold interfaith and community events for peace and goodwill. They also hold rallies for the rights of minorities, have programs to support women affected by trafficking, and provide much-needed medical support in outlying areas. Many of these areas are malaria endemic and stricken by abject poverty. 

The diocesan staff is amazing and efficient, but tackling terror? Many of them said out loud to me during my visit that they would rather put themselves in danger and put their lives at risk for something good that to sit by idly in a corner, struck down by fear. "If we sit on our corner, that is no way to live and then the terrorists have won." 
"One must keep living."
Tea with a Terrorist
On my first evening in Lahore, Bishop Azariah and I sat down in the diocesan courtyard for tea and one by one, various religious leaders joined us and it turned into an amazing discussion of politics, ideas for solutions to terror, the nature of bad things, and so much more. The main goal of the meeting of interfaith religious leaders was to come up with something tangible and concrete that could be done instead of mere words. While words are needed, everyone I spoke with agreed that terrorist attacks have become so commonplace in Pakistan that it is the norm to expect them. After a day or two in the news, people tend to move on. 
That is another form of real terror, when society becomes conditioned to injustices. 
When mourning has no pause. 
The first person to walk up and join our tea was the Maulana Hafiz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi. "Maulana" is often the appropriate word for addressing or referring to a Muslim religious scholar that is respected. It took me a few minutes of listening and then talking with him to realize I was having tea with a former terrorist...a former Afghan Taliban member, a Freedom Fighter and Jihadist supporter. The Maulana had several experiences, while in these different allegiances, that prompted him as an educated man, to re-read the Quran. In so doing, he discovered more about the truly peaceful nature of Islam and began to change some of his actions. He had been treated with respect by Christians on several occasions and in searching, found no basis for being against them. He and Bishop Azariah had begun in argument and ended up as friends...the kind of friends with whom you can argue well and disagree. Currently, he still holds strong connections to many diverse groups and has helped the Christian community multiple times when some have received death threats or terror threats. 
Iain Cunningham (Church of Scotland), Rev'd Emmanuel Khokhar (Dean of the Cathedral of the Praying Hands), Moderator Samuel Azariah, Bishop Mano Rumalshah (Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Peshawar),the Maulana Hafiz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, Sandy Sneddon, and John Hodge (Ch. of Scotland)
I asked him if forces were to take out some of the terrorist cell leaders, would that ever help or provide a breakthrough in the brainwashing that goes on or the training of suicide bombers. Maulana Ashrafi answered that behind every leader was a huge number of hopefuls waiting in the wings to become a leader and "do honor". He then explained that quite often these Taliban members get their start as idle or homeless kids, ostracized from groups. Some of them grow into being marginalized and so they seek a group where they feel they belong. Others join with the Taliban because they lack basic necessities such as food or water. They eventually associate comfort and family with these extremist groups.
Sound familiar, America? From my high school teaching experiences in Georgia, I know this to sometimes be similar to how young people join gangs.

Bishop Samuel Azariah asked a question: "Should we be asking - who are the true Muslims? or What is the true Islam?"
The Maulana answered "We are in denial if we say that the people who did this are Muslims. There is also a deeply-ingrained mentality from many that other countries are to blame."

Many of these suicide bombers come out of small "madrassas" that are disillusioned with the mainline denominations and choices of religions. A madrassa is a Muslim religious school. The international media reports the attack as (primarily) "against Christians" and this is not helpful.

Sometimes when groups evangelize their own religions to the point where they are no longer tolerant of others, this has a drastic effect. There has long been a mindset in this region that group is trying to convert each other. There has also been a feeling that Muslims were forcibly being converted by Christians. "We are the only way and the rest are heretics."

It was noted that when terrorists want to make a larger incident, they target Christians because they know that the West exaggerates this and that they make a huge picture of it.
Could it be that our mindset is the issue? True religious leaders and these religions are actually peaceful.

Soon others joined us, including Bishop Mano Rumalshah, now a friend and decidedly one of the most wise people I have ever met. Also present were three members of the Church of Scotland World Mission Council: Iain Cunningham (Convener of the World Mission Council), Sandy Sneddon, and John Hodge. It was decided in the tea that an interfaith prayer vigil at Gulshan-e-Iqbal park would take place on Sunday, April 3 at the same time as the Easter day bombing. This would be something defiantly holy. 
Photo by Iain Cunningham, Church of Scotland World Mission Council Convener
There had been a press release about the interfaith prayer vigil and worry began that it would be re-targeted, but all was well. The event was extremely powerful and moving. 
Warned that the park would be closed for security, we arrived to find Gulshan-e-Iqbal opened. About 200 people were present: local Muslim and Christian leaders, two of my colleagues from the Church of Scotland, myself from The Episcopal Church, and some families of the victims. Security was high, but it seemed that if one was intent upon re-bombing the site, it would not prove to be difficult. The event was MUCH shorter than similar events would be in this culture and I think this was advised, but also good. Normally, it would have lasted a few hours with various speeches, prayers, and songs.

I went. I prayed. I cried. I gave our condolences from the Diocese of Louisiana and from The Episcopal Church. Children are children and the horror of losing them in such senseless violence reaches a depth where no words remain. More tears came when I saw a little brother of one of the victims. He was too young to understand it all, but he was profoundly sad. I held a candle and the hands of my fellow humans, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and I felt what it is to be in communion with each other. This is so important. God is so much bigger than all of our separateness. We are a human family. I listened as everyone sang Psalm 20 together. 
Photo by The Diocese of Raiwind
In my second week in Lahore, I attended an international peace building meeting. It was hosted by (and at) the Diocese of Raiwind and sponsored in part by the NCA (the Norwegian Church Association) and the Royal Norwegian Assembly. People in attendance included: Raheel Sharoon (Development Officer for the Diocese of Raiwind), Noman Sajad (Raiwind Peace Building Department), Naufil Naseer (Programme Advisor of the Royal Norwegian Embassy), Thor Danielsson (Norwegian Church Association and Pakistan representative for the NCA, living in Islamabad), Thomas Berdal (First Secretary:Political for the Royal Norwegian Assembly), Amal Zara (Forman Christian College student in sociology and studying political science - and she's singing in my young adult group here at the diocese!), Rev.d Samuel from south Punjab, Ahmed from the Muslim community, myself (a Postulant in the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana), Amreek Singh of the Sikh Community, and Prem Prakash from the Hindu Community.

We discussed the needs of people affected by terrorism. In Lahore, where most of these incidents are targeted, there is a great deal of grassroots work being done in peacemaking and connecting communities. 
The first question came from the Norwegian First Secretary Ambassador: 
"With attacks on the city and the recent Easter Day bombing, how has the blast affected your diocesan work, the city, etc.? Was it an attack on Christians?"
Responses from the room:
There are two perspectives: 
1. It was an attack on the Christian community and 
2. It was an attack on Humanity itself.

The damage of the bomb is done, but the interfaith coalition of religious leaders has come out of it. As heard several times, this was decidedly an attack on children. The blast was done in the center of where young children were playing and the rides were not meant for adults to ride.

Some important points that came out of the meeting included:
1. Terrorist attacks happen when things are going very well and these extremist groups try to create a rift between community groups. 
2. Every time our peace building efforts get to "level 5" of making a difference, something happens and we are taken back to the drawing board.

What Steps Can Make Peace Building More Lasting and Effective?
- Events such as the interfaith payer vigil at the site of the bombing.
- Events such as this a public walk comprised of religious leaders down one of the busiest roads in Lahore.
- These events show solidarity with each other.
- It took the Diocese of Raiwind many years before the Christian and Muslim guests would eat together on our campus, but time and efforts have helped this along.
 - We must also talk to our fellow peace builders in many places so as to keep our hope alive when something terrible happens. The world is indeed our community. (Great and true point.)
- If they (the terrorists) are being so relentless in their attacks, then why should we not be?

If the bombing had not happened so recently, I wouldn't have necessarily gone, but I felt it was important to be there as a representative of my church, as an American, as a fellow person of faith, as a person of peace, and as a human. True faith is not lived underground and for this, our hearts were filled. On Good Friday, Christ breaks all barriers that come as obstacles in the beauty of our creation. On this day of vigil, we broke the cycle of terror, even if it was for one moment. We cannot be "an Easter people" without reliving the depths of divine despair, yet we must remember "One must keep living."

~ Dr. Caroline Carson is a Postulant in the Diocese of Louisiana and will be enrolled in the Sewanee School of Theology's MDiv program beginning in August, 2016.

~ Link to Facebook album (public) Photos from Pakistan

Coming Soon: 
~ Lahore's Brick Kilns, a Humanitarian Crisis
~ Music & Space: Adventures of Teaching in Pakistan

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