“Each year you can see things changing for the better”

Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
1 / 24
The sectors Presbyterian Church lit up. Throughout the night, the church played upbeat tunes on their speaker system and worshipers filtered in and out. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
2 / 24
Off the corner of Bhitai Road in Islamabad's F7, sits French Colony, an established area of the sector where a population of Christian Pakistanis reside, in preparation for Christmas and the holidays empty plots of land surrounding their neighborhood are transformed into holiday setups where people can walk through, visit Christmas markets and grab a bite. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
3 / 24
An impressive structure of a camel decorated with lights in one of the holiday set ups. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
4 / 24
Christmas trees and snowmen of cotton and fabric were common themes through out the decor where makeshift wonderlands were built. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
5 / 24
A star dug into the ground beside a sign reading ‘I Heart Pakistan’ cornered off with lights and hay. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
6 / 24
A bridge over a water way lit up. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
7 / 24
The walkway into the market place of the Christmas village where a moon and crescent, and the cross from the Salvation Army decor stand parallel to one another. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
8 / 24
The Christmas Market. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
9 / 24
An alleyway leading towards more shops in the colony. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
10 / 24
A group of Sikh teenagers who had stopped by to see the lights heads toward another decorated plot. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
11 / 24
A large scale nativity scene surrounded by a lit up walking path. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
12 / 24
Snowmen, a common theme. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
13 / 24
The Salavation Army Church. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
14 / 24
The walkway into the market place of the Christmas village where a moon and crescent, and the cross from the Salvation Army decor stand parallel to one another. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
15 / 24
The plaque outside of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the Colony. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
16 / 24
The one room church sits at the top of an assuming structure, with a few steps leading to it from the street below. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
17 / 24
Inayat Daniel Saleebi prepares his papers while sitting under the large print of the 10 Commandments in Urdu on stage in the church. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
18 / 24
Worshippers begin settling in for the evening service. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
19 / 24
Young children sing along on the mic for a prayer. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
20 / 24
Worshippers begin settling in for the evening service. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
21 / 24
Young children sing along on the mic for a prayer. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
22 / 24
Church leaders, Sabeeli with his granddaughter, get ready to cut the cake. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
23 / 24
Sabeeli invited Muslim visitors to join in on the cake cutting. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Special “Each year you can see things changing for the better”
24 / 24
A child snaps a photo of the cake which read ‘Merry Christmas’. (AN photo by Sabah Bano Malik)
Updated 25 December 2018

“Each year you can see things changing for the better”

“Each year you can see things changing for the better”
  • Residents of a Christian-dominated colony share their experiences of celebrating Christmas in the country
  • A majority from the 1.6% of the population live in the area in Islamabad

ISLAMABAD: Along Islamabad’s Bhittai Road, in a quaint corner of the F7 sector, lies the French Colony where at this time of the year festive lights adorn the streets and everyone makes a conscious decision to be part of the Christmas cheer.
The distant sound of carols breaks through the chatter and laughter of children, teenagers, and families indulging in the festivities as several try to finish last minute errands to celebrate the night before Christmas.
The area which was established decades ago is what a few thousand from Pakistan’s Christian community – or approximately 1.6 percent of the total population — call home.
Empty plots surrounding the colony – which were once strewn with walls of hay and open-air tents – take on the avatar of a bride with fairy lights galore and visible from all directions. The lights act as pretty dividers for the many Christmas-themed designs along the pathways.
Three different plots have been transformed into winter wonderlands with hues of white, pink, green, blue, and purple lighting up the night sky. Several of them are designed to resemble the Nativity Scene depicting the time when Jesus Christ was born
Cutouts of important figures from the Bible and an impressive structure of a camel built from hay is part of one installation. Another had small-scale models of the Jordan River where some believe Jesus had been baptized.
A short distance away lies the Christmas market where a tunnel of lights, on top of which sits a moon and a star with the shining cross of the Salvation Army church standing tall behind it leads you to the entrance.
Here, shop owners with their finger on the consumer’s pulse sell hot cups of chai to beat the chill of a winter’s night in Islamabad. Several rangers stand guards at the entrance of the church to ensure worshippers are safe and secure as they complete their religious obligations.
“It’s always fun to see how it changes every year, what the kids put together,” Sakina, a resident of Islamabad who was accompanied by her husband, said. “The lights are my favorite part,” she said.
“You get to run into friends at times too. We like to come by here and the markets in F6 and F8 before we head to church,” Vicky, her husband, said.
Those walking through the streets to be part of the experience include people from different faiths such as Muslims, Sikhs, and some from Islamabad’s foreign community, all seen with hot cups of tea in their hands and ensuring they “Instagrammed” their night out.
Throughout the colony, churches representing different Christian sects sit side by side within a stone’s throw away from each other.
Along the main street is the Presbyterian church — standing tall with luminous red crosses – with blaring music leading worshippers to its doors.
A few turns away from the main road is the Seventh Day Adventist Church established in 2007 by Inayat Daniel Saleebi, a priest who was waiting inside to begin his sermon on Christmas Eve.
“It’s gotten much better over the years,” Saleebi said. “Each year you can feel the change, more acceptance, more open hearts. It will simply take time. Some people they say bad things, but a lot of people…it’s changing,” he added.
Saleebi, who said the church was always open to everyone, welcomed us to come in and sit through the service. He began by apologizing for the one-hour delay by promising to “keep it short, 20 minutes”, even as laughter filled the room.
Children sit around a heater, acquaintances greet one another before taking their respective seats as the church leader hands out piping hot cups of Kashmiri chai before the service begins.
Several sing along as the choir chants hymns from worn-out copies of the Bible, with a unanimous ‘Ameen’ punctuating the prayer.
On one side of the single-room church is a ‘Happy Christmas’ sign taped onto the wall using reflective tinsel, while toward the corner of the stage – where worshippers had gathered to sit — stands a Christmas tree. Bright lights line up the perimeter of a wall where a placard — listing the 10 commandments in Urdu – occupies pride of place.
The palpable level of intimacy, invitation, and inclusion is unmistakable.
In a country where the resounding majority of citizens are Muslim, Christians who live in the vicinity are lauded for forging bonds with anyone who visits the neighborhood.
“Everyone, all religions, people of faith are in some way, extremist. We all believe that we are right and that everyone else is wrong, in some way,” Saleeba, another resident, said. “However, being kind and good…that is always the same across all religions.”
As midnight struck and Christmas Eve transformed into Christmas Day, church leaders brought out a huge cake to cut on stage. What followed were scenes which are very similar to the ones we see outside mosques on Eid day – one where loved ones and acquaintances hug each other with ‘Merry Christmas’ greetings, sharing in the hope for a happy year ahead.
In that every moment, the love and warmth felt inside the church eclipsed the cold weather outside.