How do you serve as a Christian in a hostile region, where violence has become a norm, where the news for you is rarely encouraging, where you’re held down economically, socially, and politically, and where traveling just from one place to another may make you the subject of a kidnapping?
Taliban Neighbors: Christian Life in Northwest Pakistan
by Charles Strohmer
Bishop Mano Rumalshah of the Church of Pakistan was attending a meeting of the World Conference of Churches in Geneva in 2007 when his cell phone rang. Three thousand miles away in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, his good friend and a leader in Christian humanitarian work, Dr. Reginald Zahiruddin, had just been kidnaped. The bishop, who heads the 70,000-member diocese in the large province, bade a hasty goodbye to colleagues from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt and headed straight for the airport.
Zahiruddin’s kidnaping took place two weeks before Christmas. Dr. Reginald (as he is known) is director of the diocese’s Pennell Memorial Hospital in Bannu, a town of 50,000, just outside the district of Waziristan, the scene of on-going U.S.-NATO military activity and the Pakistan army’s fight against al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas. It took the church nearly a month and 2 million rupees ($25,000) to secure his release.
“He had been traveling to a clinic when they kidnaped him. It was broad daylight,” Bishop Rumalshah told me. “He was kept chained in shed for 23 hours a day, and his captors kept asking him who was supporting him and why he was there in Bannu. There were always kalishnikovs nearby, and sometimes they would bring in a man who stood nearby sharpening a long knife. And they would end by inviting him to become Muslim.” Eventually, word of Dr. Reginald’s humanitarian work in the province reached the ears of his captors. “And some militant leaders started coming to our hospital to talk to our staff and Dr. Reginald’s wife, who has a rock solid faith, asking if they could help. We had long talks with them. Eventually through the jirga [a local assembly of Muslim elders], we got our man back the first week in January.”Kidnaping for ransom has emerged as a lucrative small business enterprise in the region
Dr. Reginald’s saga could have ended differently, but Kidnaping for ransom has emerged as a lucrative small business enterprise in the region. With its perennially shaky federal government, fragile institutions, nuclear arms, and militant radicals who want political control over those weapons, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, founded in 1947, is considered by most western analysts as the most dangerous nation on earth – and its long, mountainous region on the border with Afghanistan is by far the most unruly and violent area. That region is comprised of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the smaller Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), which, unlike the more settled NWFP, is ruled by centuries-old forms of tribal governance and remains largely autonomous of the rule of Pakistan.
Bishop Rumalshah and his family live in Peshawar, the capital of the NWFP and a strategic frontier city at the eastern end of the legendary Khyber Pass. Peshawar was much in the news in 2008 when during the summer Pakistan’s army launched offensives against Taliban who sought to take control of the city, and in December when hundreds of supply vehicles for NATO forces were destroyed by militants. “We also have suicide bombings, now,” the bishop said. “This is something new in this part of the world. Suicide has never been part of our culture. Killing is very common. But suicide is new.”
How do you serve as a Christian in a hostile region, where violence has become a norm, where the news for you is rarely encouraging, where you’re held down economically, socially, and politically, and where traveling just from one place to another may make you the subject of a kidnaping? How do you incarnate Christ when you live there, in a dark night that does not seem to be ending? I spoke to Bishop Rumalshah about this at St. Joseph the Carpenter Episcopal Church in Tennessee, where he had come to speak about Christian life and the church’s work in the region.“We try to reenact God’s love among the tribal groups.
A humble, gentle man with penetrating wisdom gained through difficult experiences and long suffering, he responded with a question of his own. “Have you ever counted the tangible cost of loving your neighbor when he may be your enemy?” It’s a question encountered regularly at the various ministries of the diocese. “In our clinics near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, for instance, it’s come one, come all. We only have meager resources, but we’re there,” Bishop Mano said: “We try to reenact God’s love among the tribal groups. If Taliban come injured to one of our border clinics, we never ask them if they are Taliban. That’s confidential to them. I’m not trying to romanticize them. It’s chilling even to think about. But they show up. They are people, who in a way are very conscious of God. But the face of a suffering God is alien to them. Due to the compulsion of my faith, I cannot hate them. They know they will be offered healing for their wounds in a quiet, humble way. If they feel alienated from others in God’s world, we are offering them a relationship that can end that alienation. We believe that a door should always be open to Christ. If you close that door, what are they going to do for Christian witness?”
Christians are an impoverished, tiny minority among the province’s 17 million Muslims (mainly Pashtuns), but the diocese – a merger of Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists – is very active, running well-established, albeit underfunded programs, including schools, a vocational training center, two hospitals, small clinics, literacy programs and work apprenticeships, micro-credit plans, rehab facilities, and youth camps. “We have also begun a movement called ‘faith friends’, in which people of different faiths move as friends,” Bishop Rumalshah said. But there are two sides to their life in the province. “On the one hand, it is a privilege that God enables us to serve others in such a hostile environment, but the other side is that the community who cares for others in turns receives discrimination. We are very vulnerable.”
Christians in the province face religious and economic discrimination and political suppression. During testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Rumalshah once spoke about an ever-present political threat, the implementation of sharia (Islamic law). Although the sharia codes are only practiced selectively in Pakistan today, some clerics and mullahs want to implement them in a way that would give non-Muslims the status of dhimmi (conquered, protected people). If that should ever occur, the bishop told the committee, “We will be treated like a conquered people and offered protection only after paying a special tax. But how could we become a conquered people in our own homeland?”Politically, little viable help has come from Pakistan’s federal government to improve this regional situation.
Even apart from official dhimmi status, the church in northwest Pakistan is a church of the poor. Christians in the province are “economically paralyzed and under severe hardships,” Rumalshah said. The diocese has calculated that 85% of its members are severely deprived because they are either stuck in the most menial of jobs or perennially unemployed. Unlike in the West, “there are no opportunities for advancement. We are in a situation like the old European Jews and old south Asians, where the majority communities would not give them jobs. The few jobs that open up are offered first to family, then clan, then tribe, then to someone recommended to you regardless of qualifications. Christians are last in line.”
Politically, little viable help has come from Pakistan’s federal government to improve this regional situation. The Muslim democratic vision of Pakistan’s founding father and first head of state, Mahomed Ali Jinnah, who is said to have held Europe as an ideal, has been persistently short-circuited throughout Pakistan’s turbulent history. Military coups have abrogated existing constitutions and imposed long periods of martial law leading to militarization of the political system and then to new constitutions. And political assassinations, such as the death in December 2007 of the popular democratic reformer Benazir Bhutto, are not uncommon.