Standing with Christians under pressure: Reflections from Pakistan
The Rev. Canon Dr. Titus Presler is Principal of Edwardes College in Peshawar, Pakistan. His most recent book is “Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference.”
Being physically attacked by agents in Peshawar several weeks ago prompts me to comment on the forms that pressure on a persecuted church takes. These call forth from us varied forms of solidarity, a word that sums up Paul’s counsel to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Survivors continue to suffer from psychic and physical injuries in the wake of the Sept. 22 suicide bombings at All Saints’ Church in Peshawar that killed 128 and wounded about 160 parishioners as they were sharing a meal after Sunday service. The daughter-in-law of a friend lost her unborn child in the blast and still is bedridden from her other injuries. “So many are still in their beds,” my friend said of survivors a couple of weeks ago. The Virginia Seminary gathering on Oct. 28 that raised $5,500 for assisting affected families was a deeply appreciated expression of empathic outreach in the disaster.
The All Saints’ community as a whole is heartbreakingly diminished. Whereas a typical Sunday service before the bombing drew 300-400 people, attendance these days is in the low 100s. 128 parishioners who used to attend are dead, and some of those remaining are too frightened or disheartened to come out. When I recently embraced All Saints’ Pastor Ejaz Gill he had little to say: his eyes simply filled with tears. Here is where Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters, the clergy and lay leaders need the Anglican Communion’s prayers, letters and phone calls in their ministry of healing the wounded body of Christ.
Meanwhile the Diocese of Peshawar, which includes the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is beset by another pressure: the effort of the provincial government to take over control of Edwardes College, which was founded in 1900 by the Church Missionary Society as the first institution of higher education on the northeast frontier with Afghanistan, and exclude the Church’s historic role in the College. Today Edwardes is the only college owned and managed by the Church of Pakistan. With 90% of our faculty and students being Muslims, 9% Christians, and 1% Hindus and Sikhs, the Church has a unique role to play in offering educational excellence and fostering inter-religious harmony in a polarized society.
As Principal of Edwardes since 2011, I have sought to raise educational standards, promote interfaith conversation, and steer the College toward the degree-awarding status that will enhance its ability to offer a distinctive education in Pakistan. The proposed Charter for degree-awarding status – which, as in the USA, requires governmental endorsement – would return the College to the Church’s oversight and resolve confusion about the College’s governance that has existed since a semi-nationalization move by the province in 1974.
Working on this has been complicated: consultations and negotiations, historical and legal analyses, reams of proposals and counter-proposals. It’s a ministry that highlights the importance of Christian institutions in the Church’s mission. In the West the institutions of civil society are so numerous and well established that it can be easy not only to take them for granted but to dismiss institutions in favor of individualistic initiatives. In Pakistan the institutions of civil society are fragile. With the rise of religious extremism, the institutions of religious minorities are especially vulnerable to being undermined, marginalized, taken over. An institution such as Edwardes is critically important as a bearer of the Church’s vision and presence in society beyond the bounds of congregations. Standing with the Church in this witness has been my offering of missional solidarity.
But the opposition is real. In December Bishop Humphrey, some of my colleagues and I received threatening visits, followed by instigated demonstrations. Then on Feb. 14, while starting on a drive to Islamabad with Muslim friends, I was accosted by men who identified themselves as intelligence agents at the motorway toll plaza in Peshawar and hustled into another vehicle where they pounded me with their fists, destroyed my visa and warned me to leave the country.
When prayer began pushing up through the shock as my friends drove me away from the scene, it was this: “Friend Jesus, this and so much worse is what your Christian brothers and sisters have been experiencing here in Pakistan for so long. This and so much worse is what many of your Muslim brothers and sisters have been experiencing here for so long. Now I know it first-hand. I’m not thankful for the beating, Friend Jesus, but I am thankful for the knowledge. And for still being alive.”
In those moments of literal powerlessness I experienced the paradox of the gospel of the cross that Paul illuminated so well: “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” We don’t know how the story of this particular struggle will end, whether the Church in its weakness will regain its rightful place or not. The attack on me has dramatized that a serious political and legal struggle is underway, and that is a blessing. In Islamabad I continue to wait for substitute documentation for the vandalized visa, which is a discipline of patience. Meanwhile the prayers and letters of Christians around the world sent to the Bishop and me sustain us. Such solidarity is what defines us all together as the Church: different limbs and organs supporting one another in Christ’s mystical body in the world.