Pakistan’s loneliest church celebrates Christmas in Taleban country



Mehreen Zahra-Malik | Reuters

Published — Monday 24 December 2012

Last update 24 December 2012 11:27 pm

| نسخة PDF Print News | A A

SOUTH WAZIRISTAN, Pakistan: This Christmas, pastor Nazir Alam will stoke up a fire, lay a fresh cloth on the altar and welcome parishioners as they arrive at his church in Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal area known as an Al-Qaeda haven.
“The lights are all up, and the choir boys are ready. The church is looking its best,” said 60-year-old Alam, a former missionary who has celebrated his last ten Christmases there. “There’s not much left to do but to pray and rejoice.”
Outsiders might see little cause for joy. Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for minorities, says London-based watchdog Minority Rights Group International. Christians, Shiite Muslims and Ahmadis are victims of a rising tide of deadly attacks.
But Alam’s church, and the homes of most of his 200 parishioners, are nestled inside a Pakistani army base in South Waziristan, a mountainous region that was a hotbed of militancy until a military offensive in 2009.
“When the US went into Kabul, things became bad for everyone. But we are safe here. The army protects us,” says Shaan Masih, who helps clean the church and likes to play the drums and sing carols.
For two decades, the church was little more than a room and the tiny community worshipped there under light protection. In 2009, the army set up a base in South Waziristan as part of the offensive against the insurgency and invited the church inside.
“It was a longstanding demand of the community to be given a proper space,” Col. Atif Ali, a military officer, told Reuters during a rare trip to the region arranged by the military.
Many of the Christians work for the army in clerical or domestic positions. So far, they have been sheltered from the bombings, raids and drone strikes, violence that rocks the region on an almost daily basis.
Less than a 100 miles away (160 km) lies North Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan and one of the last areas controlled by the Pakistani Taleban.
The United States has repeatedly urged Pakistan to launch an operation against militants sheltered there including remnants of Al-Qaeda and Pakistani groups targeting the nation’s minorities.
Pakistan says it is doing everything it can to fight the militancy and needs to consolidate the campaign in South Waziristan before opening a new front.

Freshly painted
The small blue and white church building has been freshly painted and the main hall covered in new ceramic tiles. A small chandelier hangs from the ceiling and a cloth spread over the altar reads: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
The church’s gratitude to the army is expressed in a sign outside thanking Ali for his help with the renovation.
“Now it is much easier and convenient for them to worship. The new building is close to their homes. They are very happy with us,” he said.
While Christians elsewhere in the country are lowering their profile, community members here mix freely with their Muslim neighbors. Their children attend the same schools and neighbors go to each others’ weddings and funerals.
When five Christians from Waziristan were kidnapped by the Taleban on their way to the plains of Punjab in 2009, pressure from the army and the community helped free them.
“There are lots of Muslims in our neighborhood,” said 30-year-old Saleem Masih, another church helper. “We take part in each other’s happiness and sorrow. Christmas is coming. You’ll see the Muslims will join us.”
Relations between Pakistan’s Christians and Muslims are not always so harmonious. Rimsha Masih, a teenage Christian girl, was accused of blasphemy in Islamabad earlier this year in a case that underlined the climate of fear and suspicion that minorities face.
Masih was eventually cleared of the charges, but many of her neighbors fled their homes and her family is still in hiding. Nine Christians were killed after a similar accusation in 2009 and mobs frequently lynch anyone accused of blasphemy before they can get to court.
That’s one reason why Christians in South Waziristan say they feel safer in their army base than living in Pakistan’s capital, where they are vulnerable to accusations from anyone who covets their homes or businesses.
But the main reason, says pastor Alam, is their trust in their neighbors, ordinary Muslims who are also living under the shadow of war.
“If there is one person who kills, there are also so many who protect. We couldn’t live here if Muslims didn’t give us protection,” said Alam.
“Don’t forget: where there is bad, there is always good also.”

What's happening around Saudi Arabia

ALKHOBAR: A power failure at the King Fahd Causeway on Wednesday night resulted in a massive traffic congestion, even as officials failed to explain the cause of the snag, local media reported.A power outage for 74 minutes on the link between the Kin...
JEDDAH: A female Saudi lawyer was able to get a stay order on a ruling by the general court in Jeddah that awarded custody of a two-year-old girl to her father. She successfully argued to get the court order reversed that gave custody back to the mot...
JEDDAH: The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Haia) said that combating harassment cases is part of its responsibility to promote Islamic values and morals in society.“Those harassing women will be brought to book,” s...
RIYADH: A thick layer of sand covered the city’s skyline on Saturday with a heavy blanket of dust caused by strong winds hampering visibility and creating traffic snarls on busy roads.The traffic department advised motorists to drive slowly and exerc...
JEDDAH: More than 26 million Umrah pilgrims and worshippers visited the Grand Mosque during the month of Ramadan and in the first few days after Eid Al-Fitr, thanks to a smooth transport arrangement under the guidance of Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-...
AL-AHSA: An outbreak of lumpy skin disease (LSD) has been discovered in cattle in Al-Ahsa which is an area with many cows. All necessary measures have been taken to protect the livestock, said Mahmoud Al-Shuaibi of the Agriculture Department in Al-Ah...
RIYADH: An architectural masterpiece — the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center (KAHC) — in Riyadh is a huge complex dedicated solely to collecting, preserving, promoting and showcasing the history and heritage of Saudi Arabia. The KAHC is a three milli...
RIYADH: The Saudi Blind Society (Kafif) has made all preparations for the three-day workshop for the blind to be held here next week and attended by delegates from various Asian countries.Mohammed bin Suleiman Al-Shuwaiman, Kafif director general, th...
JEDDAH: The number of Saudis who took early retirement schemes last year stood at 38,647, the General Organization for Social Insurance (GOSI) has said. The Eastern Provinces got the lion's share of disbursements for retirees, amounting to SR3.8 bill...
JEDDAH: Meat and poultry topped the list of food items seized by the Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA) at the border crossings for violating the health standards in the last two months.Approximately 267,137 kg of unfit meat and poultry were reject...
JEDDAH: Many sponsors and workers of small companies are struggling to get a comparatively cheaper health cover for renewal of iqama (residential permit) as the insurance companies have stopped issuing the same.The passport department has made it com...
RIYADH: Police have detained 11 Indonesian nationals, who arrived in the holy city of Makkah for Umrah a few days back.The Indonesian Religious Affairs Ministry is working closely with the Indonesian Consulate in Jeddah to assist the group of citizen...
JEDDAH: The National Committee for Bakeries at the Council of Saudi Chambers (CSC) said this Haj season would see no shortage in supplies of bakery items.The committee said there was need to increase operational labor by about 20 percent.It confirmed...
LONDON: Members of Osama Bin Laden’s family were among four people who died when a private jet crashed in Britain, Saudi Arabia’s embassy in London said on Saturday.The Saudi-registered plane plowed into a car auction site and burst into flames in so...
JEDDAH: Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Al Hamzi, director general of prisons, has sacked Brig. Ahmad Al Shahrani, director of Jeddah prisons, after the case of a video clip about prisoners taking heroin went viral, according to local media.Quoting informed source...

Stay Connected

Facebook