Posted by: Titus Presler | June 10, 2011

Mission in Peshawar: Reflections from the ground

Christian Mission and the Encounter with Islam:

A View from Peshawar in Pakistan Today

The Rev. Canon Titus Presler, Th.D., D.D.

Principal, Edwardes College, Peshawar, Pakistan

Forum at St. Philip’s Cathedral, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Sunday, 22 May 2011.  Podcast available here.

I’m delighted to have an opportunity to greet you this morning and discuss mission and relations with Muslims from the perspective of a ministry in higher education in Peshawar, Pakistan.  I just got off the plane this morning from Peshawar via Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, so you are getting my very first impressions while en route to the triennial conference of the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion, which begins today in Sewanee, Tennessee.  It was on May 1 that I began a ministry as Principal, or President, of Edwardes College, an undergraduate and graduate institution of the Diocese of Peshawar.  That’s one of the eight dioceses of the Church of Pakistan, a church formed in 1970 from the union of Anglicans, Lutherans, British Methodists, and Scottish Presbyterians.

An Environment of Unrest

The city of Peshawar and the Pakistani-Afghan border near where it sits naturally bring to mind pictures and news stories of violence and unrest.  Those associations are well warranted, and my guess is that you’re curious about that, so I’d like to talk a bit about the current situation as an entry into the dimensions of mission, interfaith relations and Christian higher education that are the subject of this talk.

Mano Rumalshah, the retired bishop of Peshawar and a good friend, has jokingly suggested that the title of my next book be The Day I Landed, because May 1, the day I landed, was initially reported to be the day on which US Navy Seals helicoptered into Abbottabad and killed Osama bin Laden.  I first heard the news as I was checking the New York Times website at midmorning Pakistani time on Monday, May 2, and it was first from me that a number of my colleagues in Peshawar heard the news.    In Pakistan the political and military ramifications of the Abbottabad raid have been those of an 8-point earthquake, and you know very well the tsunami of news and commentary that have ensued about the raid around the world.

Abbottabad is in the Diocese of Peshawar, and on a visit to the diocese in January I accompanied Bishop Humphrey Peters on a trip to a wedding held in St. Luke’s Church there.  The negative reaction to the US raid put me in mind of the fact that the town was founded in 1853 by after Major James Abbott of the British army, obviously during a period of pervasive imperial rule – and today Pakistanis feel they are in the grip of a less direct but equally pervasive imperialism as they are sucked into the US war in Afghanistan.  My own association with Abbottabad is of preaching at that January wedding at St. Luke’s and getting to know Pastor Riaz Mubarak, who spent a year studying at the Seminary of the Southwest as a result of a connection I set up between that seminary and the diocese when I was president of the seminary.  I mention that as a way of stressing that as Anglicans you can be sure that your church is everywhere – even next door to the lair of Osama!

At any rate, it was startling to land and have the US raid unfold on virtually the same day.  In Peshawar I wear clerical shirt and collar almost exclusively, so it is clear to all that I am a Christian cleric of some sort, and ordinary people are unlikely to mistake me for a US government functionary.  At the same time I am, so far as I know, the only non-governmental USAmerican in Peshawar, a city of 2.5 million, so I exercise a good deal of care lest I become a target for extremists out to destroy everything and everyone from the USA.  Pakistanis have marveled at my presence amid the rush of anti-American feeling in the country, and I believe that an ancillary benefit of my being there is the opportunity to present a different face of my country.

The ongoing unrest is considerable.  Last week 96 people were killed in a suicide bomb blast at a paramilitary base about an hour north of Peshawar.  This week about 100 militants tried to storm an outpost on the north side of the city and were turned back only after a four-hour gun battle.  During breakfast Friday morning I heard a blast some distance away, and it turned out that a car bomb targeting two USAmericans en route to work at the consulate killed a Pakistani passerby and wounded 11 people, including the two Americans slightly.  And there are many other attacks up and down the western border of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan and sometimes much deeper in the country, most of them claimed by the Tereek-i-Taliban Pakistan.  Over the past decade 30,000 Pakistani civilians and 5,000 soldiers have been killed by what is turning out to be a major insurgency.

The consequences of this for life and mission in the region are considerable:

1. Routines of ordinary life become restricted: People hesitate to travel at night, whether in town or in the countryside, so night-time events are few and far between.  Receptions at the college, for instance, need to be scheduled while there is still daylight.  And families want their children to attend schools as close to home as possible in order to minimize their danger in traveling to and fro.

2. Efforts to improve education, healthcare and economic opportunity in rural areas are held back: You’ve doubtless heard about the Taliban destroying schools that enroll girls in rural and mountainous areas.  Several students at the college have not been able to go home to Parachinar, a beautiful area near the Afghan border, for over a year because the road has been closed and it is not safe to travel.  That kind of constriction affects profoundly the efforts of government, church, mosque and NGO to reach out to human need.

3. Inter-religious tension rises, and the persecution of Christians intensifies: Last Sunday a woman who is the only Christian teaching at a government high school told me about how when her daughters were students at that school, the three of them would be invited to sing hymns at Christmas and Easter, but that could never happen today, she said.  The extremism of how Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws are applied is a travesty that has finally caught world’s attention, as you know through the cases of Asia Bibi, the woman laborer condemned to death on spurious charges that she blasphemed the prophet Muhammad; the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, for opposing the blasphemy laws; and the assassination of Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, for the same reason.  In the last month a church in the center of the country was attacked by 500 people enflamed by a rumor that pages of the Quran had been burned by Christians, and you’re doubtless aware that violence erupted in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other parts of the world in connection with the Quran burning that occurred earlier in Florida.

4. Thoughtful people in Pakistan are deeply discouraged:  This past week a Muslim colleague said to me in despairing tones, “This country was not like this.  People used to live together in harmony.  In fact, we saw ourselves as a secular society.”  On the plane yesterday, another Muslim said to me, “Our country has been tarnished,” and he went on to say he believed the fatal mistake was for Pakistan and the USA alike to side with religiously motivated violence in supporting the mujahedeen to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.  Many Christians despair.  I talked with a young Christian medical intern who sees her only hope as leaving the country for the West.  I’m aware that a Christian professional family of four will be emigrating to North America this summer because they don’t want their children to grow up in a country where they future as Christians would be so limited and insecure.  So there’s a significant brain drain, which is tragic both for Pakistan and for the future of the Christian community there.

Edwardes College’s Contribution

In this environment the contribution of Edwardes College is major, and it has the potential to be even more important in the future.  In the geo-politics of that region, people in the West rightly ask, “What can we do?”  Well, the church is there in courageous witness, and Edwardes is vital in that.  It is the only institution of higher education of the Church of Pakistan, so it stands as an abiding and dynamic witness to Christ and to the Christian community’s commitment to serve the country.  Of its 2,800 students, 2,600 are Muslim and 200 are Christian, and of the 85 faculty, about six are Christian and the remainder are Muslim.  All alike are exposed to an educational community that lifts up the liberal arts and sciences in an atmosphere that both values religion and insists that Christians and Muslims can live together.  In an increasingly polarized society, the importance of this witness is profound.

Perhaps you’ll be surprised to hear that the Christian students at Edwardes are not the privileged of Pakistan, for the disabilities under which the Christian community has operated now for generations result in the vast majority of Christians being poor as they are relegated to the lowest paying and often the most demeaning jobs.  This results in poor schooling for Christian children, so the majority of Christian students at Edwardes are there as a result of special consideration.  Both academically and financially they receive what are called “concessions” that enable them to attend.  Maintaining this outreach to Christian young people is vitally important to the future of the Christian community in Pakistan.  Standing in solidarity with the suffering and the marginalized is one vital marker of Christian mission, and I feel that this ministry at Edwardes is one expression of that solidarity, as is the ministry of simply being there in a time of such trial and apprehension for the society as a whole.

Venture in Mission

For me as a missionary, the venture in Pakistan is compelling.  A definition of mission that I develop at some length in my recent book, Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference, is that mission is ministry in the dimension of difference.  Amid all the forms of service to which God calls us, we are distinctively on mission when we are reaching out beyond who and where we are to work with and form community with people who are different from ourselves – different in some socially identifiable way such as race, religion, ethnicity, language or nationality.

Reaching out to difference extends the reach of the Christian gospel, and that is the story of how the Christian movement has grown from several hundred believers after Jesus’ resurrection to the world’s most populous religion today.  Equally important, reaching out to difference challenges and transforms our vision of what the Christian gospel is.  As the gospel takes root in different cultural and religious environments, new revelations spring forth about what God was and is up to in Christ, what it is to pray and preach and care, what it is to be a Christian community.  Our own Christian understanding changes, and the interchange enriches the global Christian community.

The frontier of difference is not new to me, but Peshawar rings changes on it for me.  I grew up in India in a majority Hindu environment.  While my parents focused on research in Hinduism and Islam, the seminary where they taught was, of course, a Christian enclave, as was the school I attended in the Himalayas.  Over the past 25 years of my own ministry I’ve focused a great deal on African Christianity, stemming from the mission service my wife Jane Butterfield and I offered in Zimbabwe in the 1980s.  In race, economics and language, that was an environment of radical difference, but, ironically, it was overwhelmingly Christian, so extensive has Christian conversion been in sub-Saharan Africa.  This is my first experience of living and ministering in a majority-Muslim environment.

And while it is has Christian auspices, Edwardes College is not a Christian enclave:

– At our daily Management Team meetings, I ask a different member to open our time with prayer each day.  Three of us offer prayer in the name of Allah; two of us offer prayer in the name of the Trinity.

– Campus-wide gatherings typically open with a reading from the Quran, followed by a reading from the Bible.

– About ten graduating students, all Muslim, invited me to dinner the other night.  After some chitchat one of them asked me about the Trinity and how we Christians work out the oneness of God with the doctrine of “three Persons” in the Godhead.  The next question concerned prophecy and the differences between how Muslims believe the Quran was delivered through Muhammad by something like dictation and how Christians understand the authors of our scriptures to have been “inspired” by the Holy Spirit.  So inter-religious dialogue is always ready at hand.

– The campus has both a chapel and a mosque, both of them small.  On Fridays the majority of the campus scatters to various mosques in town for prayers.  The Christians gather for what I experience as bracing mustardseed eucharist in the historic chapel consecrated by the Church Missionary Society in 1888.  So far, my preaching has tended to focus on the boundary of difference: What does it mean to be Christian as a marginalized minority in the encounter with Islam?

 So the inter-religious encounter is constant as I offer a ministry of leadership as an Anglican priest and academic in a diverse academic community.  What is it doing for me?  How may it be changing me?  I don’t know yet, for I’ve not been there long enough!  But I can say this: I’m mulling some things!

 – One is the daily experience of inter-religious prayer.  My Muslim colleagues pray for things similar to what my Christian colleague prays for and what I pray for.  Are we influencing each other?  Maybe.  Are we starting from similar places?  Maybe.  Are we praying to the same God?  Maybe.

– The universality of the call to prayer in Muslim societies is something we can all learn from.  Yes, it can become rote, but so can any form of prayer.  The urgency about prayer that results in an audibly public call to prayer issuing from mosques and minarets around the world – with millions of Muslims answering with a drop to their prayer rugs – is exemplary and edifying for all of us.  How regular, really, are many of us in our prayer life?  Our prayerbook offers forms for morning, noonday, evening and the close of day – even one-page versions for the especially busy or distracted – but how many of us include that in our daily rhythm?

– More controversially, living in the conservative Muslim society of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa may be gives me a different perspective on gender relations.  On a daily basis, I rarely shake hands with a woman, and the vast majority of the women I encounter are deliberately covered, whether with a headscarf, a face covering or a full burqua.  The feminist in me cries out, “Oppression!  Repression!  Up with freedom and equal opportunity!”  And yet it feels like there is a profound respect for boundaries, and that there is something good in that.

– Back on prayer, the practice of taking shoes off while entering a space of worship – I grew up with that in India, whether among Christians, Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, so it’s not entirely new to me, but it is edifying.  It forces a preparatory pause, and it keeps us humble: there’s not much we can do about our feet.  They are what they are, reminding us that before God and before everything else we are what we are and no more than what we are.

Community of Perseverance

I’d like to close this talk by celebrating the faith and perseverance of the Christian community in Pakistan in the midst of the adversity they face.  Last Sunday I was at All Saints’ Church in the dense Kohati Gate bazaar area of the old city of Peshawar.  It’s one of the oldest churches in Peshawar, dating from the 1880s, built by missionaries in the style of a mosque, and so it’s an edifice that partakes of the cultural and religious environment in which it is located, much as the Mogul-style buildings of Edwardes College do as well.  The service is entirely in Urdu, and the music carries the lilting dips and half-tones of music on the subcontinent.

For many years now the congregation of All Saints has catalyzed a remarkable witness at Easter.  They gather at 4 on Easter morning and process through the streets of Peshawar singing Urdu Easter hymns.  They pause from time to time to read aloud one of the Easter stories, and they loudly proclaim the resurrection of Our Lord.  This year the route was shortened at the police’s suggestion because of the heightened danger of attack, but, as they do every year, the police protected the walkers.  The custom has grown over the years so that now it draws about 5,000 Christians from denominations all over the city to proclaim their faith in the risen Lord.

In the Peshawar of today that’s faith.  That’s courage.  That’s witness.  And I thank God for it.


  1. […] Mission in Peshawar: Reflections from the ground ( […]

  2. […] other is Titus Presler’s address at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, Georgia on May 22.  Titus arrived in Pakistan to begin […]

  3. Titus, It is so good to read your talk. Your presence is gift of reconciliation that is at the core of our Anglicanism. Carol and I wish the best for you and Jane and all the students and faculty at Edwardes. You bring new meaning and dimension to the Feast of Pentecost.
    Peace, Dick Murphy

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