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Message from the President

Bishop Philip HugginsChristian Conference of Asia: Lahore – Pastoral/Solidarity Visit October 2 – 7, 2016

“Faithful, courageous, grateful and kind”.

These are the descriptive words which capture my experience of the people we have met. Faithful and courageous, for this is a place where faith is tested by circumstances beyond people’s control. But faithful they remain.

Like the staff in the Bible Society who keep reaching out with the precious Word of God. Their plans are for expansion: New translations, better distribution. Their office is remarkably unprotected in the business district. As is the National Council of Churches in Pakistan (NCCP) Hostel, the Churches and the other offices we visited. Sometimes a sleepy guard at a flimsy gate, if that. 

One Christian educator spoke of a new Government requirement that their Christian Schools install, at the Church’s expense, tougher gates, bigger walls with barbed wire. The Schools offer education to many Muslim children as do the Christian Hospitals provide a service to all in need. Extra security costs will mean less staff and services. They need help from their Government. Their witness is generous, centred on the needs of people. It is the true Gospel spirit of Jesus.

Faithful service is offered with remarkable courage. We heard of many rural pastors who have no Churches in which to gather people, live on very little money, and often face serious harassment for their faith. We were reminded, in the vast and chaotic city of Lahore, that 90% of Pakistan’s populations are in the rural areas.

Situated in the same building as the Bible Society is a Christian Radio producer who tells of how, through radio programs, it is possible to reach people in languages and dangerous areas other-wise out of reach. The intimacy and privacy of radio allows people to examine and then grow in Christian faith through radio study groups and systematic Bible studies. The radio programs can also offer primary health care education and advice to areas without such resources or where discussion of some topics, especially for women, is tabooed. He tells wonderful stories of rural women’s gratitude.

This dear man gave his time to us, notwithstanding his grief at having lost his father suddenly, just days earlier. His father, a pastor too, must have been very proud of him. The witness of those we met is faithful and courageous, even as people experience the situation getting worse for minorities. We asked what the trend is many times. No one thinks the situation is improving, even though as Bishop Azad said, people want to be victors, not victims.

We were given the better, fuller historic context, tracing back to Partition and the expectation then that Pakistan would be a secular and genuine democracy, protecting minority rights. Christians provided the casting vote which birthed the new nation. They have witnessed this promise disintegrate into today’s Islamic State where minorities suffer in a corrupted legal and political system, by the accounts of those we listened to. The white in the National Flag represents the place of minorities – their security and flourishing was a foundational principle of Pakistan! So sad now!

The history of Pakistani Christians is traced back to St Thomas’ journey from Jerusalem, having seen the wounds of suffering in the Risen Jesus. St Thomas is understood to have been in Pakistan on his way, eventually, to Chennai/Madras around AD53. (Excavated ruins provide extra archaeological evidence to go with the oral history.) With that long Christian history, pre-dating European Christianity by centuries, Pakistani Christians have nevertheless had to put up with ridiculous propaganda casting them as a Western Church and part of colonial imperialism.

Of course, as in the Middle East, many Christians have left Pakistan for better economic opportunity and greater personal safety in nations like the UK, USA and Australia. Such choices, as I know from those I meet, are reluctant and painful. Pakistan is their homeland. Leaving is never a preference. Some of those we met have family overseas. 

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Interreligious leaders meet with the CCA delegation in Lahore. Bp Huggins far right.

Others worry about the safety of their own families in Pakistan. They do not want that their own faithful and courageous witness imperils those loved ones’ very lives. This is an acute and painful daily reality. Hence the vivid prayerfulness we witnessed and embraced. Hence, too, the underlying stress of daily life. It is hard to relax in Pakistan.

A father told the story of his 9 year old son at school, sitting next to a Muslim boy. His class-mate drew a Cross with a Jesus figure on it. Then the boy spat on it! Nine years old and already brainwashed into hatred. Children have to be taught how to hate. It’s not where they start. We received some resources from the National Council for Justice and Peace (NCJP) detailing the biased content of textbooks of 2014-2015. Students are educated into religious prejudice and social division.

Late at night, after a congenial time with the Interfaith Harmony group, including many Muslim clerics of kindly disposition, we watched a video of a Muslim mob recently burning down a beautiful old Church in Pesha-war. The brave filmmaker captured the mob violence, the cruel pleasure of destruction, young men caught up in it, the police only arriving once the Church, School and Hall were completely destroyed.

It takes great faith and courage to be a Christian in deteriorating Pakistan. Especially as no one we spoke to expects any improvement in terms of political and legal leadership. The context for faith is, as Bishop Azad said, like that of the early Church: a minority Church amidst hostility.

It is deeply moving that such a simple gesture as we made by coming here in pastoral solidarity, should receive such gratitude and generosity of response. The appreciation of the Christian Conference of Asia’s initiative was overwhelming. It speaks of how isolated Pakistani Christians have felt and are feeling. People drove, in some cases, more than 9 hours to sit in a large group, say little but just be with us for a meeting.

From the Bible Society to the Church of Pakistan, the Presbyterian Church and the ecumenical bodies, we received a welcome which was carefully planned, generous and embarrassingly respectful. The visit was well coordinated by our hosts at the NCCP – especially General Secretary Mr Victor Azariah and CCA’s Rev Arshad Gill and Ms Sunila Ammar.

As our visit of pastoral solidarity concluded, we knew, roughly, what our responsibility is and consolidated this with final conversations. It is three-fold:

Firstly, obviously, to support the Pakistani Church with our prayers. We have seen their faces. We know their stories.

Secondly, to nurture and shape what sustainable partnerships we see as possible in and through the networks of CCA and our individual Churches. Some partnerships we can see are (i) to assist the theological colleges we visited access quality teaching staff, even on short-term secondments; to foster capacity-building, perhaps with a project officer who might work to Ms Sunila at the CCA Office in Lahore with NCCP; (ii) to sustain the support CLAAS needs for its legal aid assistance programs for those facing human rights violations; (iii) to give opportunities to emerging Pakistani theologians so they can write transformative, contextual theologies in the Pakistani soil.

The third responsibility is the kind of advocacy we know is needed from the international Church so that oppression is exposed and change happens. We know how this has worked in times past (as in South Africa) but we also know how hard it is to sustain advocacy within the demands of our own lives.

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Lahore College of Theology, with the founder, Bishop Azad, students and staff. A wonderful initiative in faith.

We also know that the way we do advocacy must be in and through consultation with the NCCP family so that our goodwill does not have unintended, negative consequences.

On my way to Lahore, via Karachi, I talked with some fine young Muslims from the Aga Khan University. Thereafter, at every opportunity, I tried to hear what young Pakistanis, both Christian and Muslim, wanted to say. It was mostly those with access to higher education with whom we could speak. They speak with enthusiasm and conviction that Pakistan’s future can be much, much better. They aspire to be nation-builders. (Education and pathways into sustainable employment is the key.) They are hopeful and, trusting in the redemptive ways of our Saviour, we can and must support them as best we can.

Our actions must help these dear people freely practice their religion and contribute their best to nation-building, helping Pakistan recover its founding vision of a country at peace with itself and at peace with its minorities, remembering that white on the national flag.

As we know, Pakistan is an acute example of a global matter. That is the struggle to ensure no country accidently or deliberately supports the persecution of anyone for their religious beliefs.

It is such an important and deeply civilising struggle, in the love of our Saviour.

Thank you for your prayers during this special Pastoral Visit, in the grace of Jesus. 

Bishop Philip Huggins

President

National Council of Churhes in Australia

 

 

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