Christians in Pakistan Keep the Faith in the Face of Turmoil

Like everyone else here, Christians in this overwhelmingly Muslim country are anxious about U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan.

Catholics and Protestants who have quietly practiced their faith for decades are worried they could be singled out for harassment or attack by a misguided sense of vengeance.

"Generally the relationship between Christians and Muslims is good here," says the Rev. Irshad John, acting vicar of St. Thomas Anglican Church in Islamabad. "But when these kinds of things happen, a few extremist, fundamentalist elements become angry. And that's a danger."

John reports his church has not received any serious threat since the U.S. attacks began. But he says Christian fears in Pakistan extend beyond the fate of Usama bin Laden and the Taliban government.

"We live in fear of retaliation not from what may happen in Afghanistan, but also what may happen to Muslims in the United States," he says. "If something happens to Pakistanis or Muslims in the states, we fear extremists here will take it out on us."

Yet John, who ministers to a thriving congregation of more than 800, proudly says his flock has kept its faith. There has been no drop-off in attendance at his weekly sermons, despite calls by some radical mullahs before the U.S. strikes to burn churches or otherwise strike against Christians.

Catholics and Protestants make up about half of Pakistan's religious minorities, according to John, putting their number at a bit less than 2 million. Most live in larger cities such as Lahore, but there are significant clusters in provincial towns like Quetta, home to an estimated 25,000 Christians.

Christianity in Pakistan dates back many centuries to the time when St. Thomas himself visited the subcontinent. However, many Pakistanis believe it was the recent evangelicals who brought Christianity here, John says, and they don't realize the community's long history.

Located just blocks off one of the city's main commercial strips, St. Thomas is the best-known of Islamabad's five churches, two of which are Catholic.

At first glance on the Sunday morning before the bombing began, the scene was something right out of American suburbia.

The church itself is bright and modern, constructed almost entirely of red brick in the early 1990s. Outside is a shiny silver plaque commemorating the foundation laying by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, in 1990. The gardens and courtyard are spacious and meticulously maintained. There's plenty of parking outside and in back, as well as a basketball hoop and a children's play area.

On Sunday the 9:15 a.m. service was packed. Rev. John delivered his sermon in steady, measured tones, as adults attentively looked on. As they do in churches everywhere, the children fidgeted in their seats. Two girls and a boy bolted for the aisle, ignoring disapproving glances from one young mother.

But there was no mistaking the unique cultural influences of Pakistani society at St. Thomas.

Outside, hundreds of parishioners left their shoes at the front door, as they would at a mosque. The congregation inside was partially segregated by gender, with most women sitting on one side of the aisle, and more men on the other. Several dozen people in the front rows knelt on the ground throughout the service, another common sight in mosques.

The messages from the congregation and the pulpit were, not surprisingly, about faith, healing and forgiveness.

"We know, Lord, that you will be able to turn around the situation in Afghanistan, and we thank you for your role all over the world, especially in America," said a woman speaker during the English-language service. "We ask that you please be with the families of the victims of the tragedy in this crucial time."

The Rev. Christopher Edgar, who temporarily returned to Islamabad from his posting in Kuwait to help manage the congregation through the current crisis, delivered a strong and confident sermon, exhorting parishioners to keep their faith in God "through these most difficult times.

"It is easy to say as a nation, be it America or anyone else, 'In God We Trust.' But it is another to mean it all the time, in everything we do. We must trust in God, no matter what happened on Sept. 11. We trust in God no matter what."

Edgar offered a confident prediction that his congregation, and the Christian community as a whole in Pakistan, will find a way to endure the current crisis.

"God is there in the times that are fair and the times that are turbulent," he offered. "We are very thankful for that, for it is times like these that we most rely on him to see us through."