Posted by: Titus Presler | April 1, 2012

Prisoners of hope in Peshawar on Palm Sunday

Liturgy of the Palms outside St. John's Cathedral

Liturgy of the Palms outside St. John's Cathedral

“Prisoners of hope”, the phrase the prophet Zechariah uses in the Palm Sunday lection for God’s people, was a fitting description for the thousand Christians who gathered on the Sunday of the Passion at St. John’s Cathedral in Peshawar yesterday.

The procession from the main gate of the cathedral grounds featured 5-foot palm branches, and the prayers on the verge of the cathedral concluded with the Urdu exclamation, “Khudawan Yesu Masih ki jai!” – “The victory of the Lord Jesus Christ!”

St. John’s has a large regular congregation, meaning well over 500 people attending on a typical Sunday, but Palm Sunday Eucharist was packed, and the singing, always strong, approached a bellow with the dark tones of some of the Passiontide Urdu hymns.  The service took close to three hours to conclude, and, in no hurry to

Palm Sunday worship at St. John's Cathedral, Peshawar

Palm Sunday worship at St. John's Cathedral, Peshawar

leave, folks visited with each other for a good while outside on the grounds after the service.

The congregation is hard to characterize as to age, so evenly spread is it across the spectrum – lots of young adults, whether alone, with their families of origin or with their own families; lots of people in middle years; many teenagers, a multitude of children, and a good representation of older folks.  I’d say the median age yesterday was something like 33, which bespeaks a vital church with staying power and a strong future.

All this is a robust witness in a wider environment where religious minorities face such significant challenges on an ongoing basis that hoping is sometimes difficult.  Yet hope the Christians do, and they are sustained in that hope by a gospel that signifies God’s solidarity in the experience of suffering, and by the mutual support they celebrate on such occasions as Palm Sunday – and every Sunday.

Completed in 1860, St. John’s originally was the garrison church for the British military force gathered on the northwest frontier of British India, hence the former name of this province, Northwest Frontier Province, or NWFP, and it is Peshawar’s oldest church.  At the Peshawar Museum is displayed a photograph from the 1860s that shows the cathedral rising from an almost empty plain on which the outlines of future roadways have been laid out with white stones.  Now the cathedral lies at the center of a busy metropolis of about 5 million people.  After yesterday’s service Prince Javed, a member of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly, told me about how his father, J. D. Israel, was responsible in 1930 for securing permission for Urdu-speaking Christians to worship at the cathedral.  Today, of course, the cathedral’s ministry is almost entirely in Urdu, and there is a very small English service.

During the great Palm Sunday liturgy came word that a Christian groundskeeper, Fazal, at Edwardes College had died during the night.  We went from the cathedral to join the graveside service at the Christian cemetery, where the rosary was being chanted by the coffin while the grave was still being dug.  A simple wooden cross was held above the heads of those around the grave.

A sign.  The sign.


  1. Thank you for the pictures, as well as the wonderful word picture at the end. I can just see the simple wooden cross — hope in Jesus, hope in our resurrection with Him. Blessings to you this Eastertime.

    • Thanks very much, Laurel, for your comment. A blessed Eastertide to you and yours as well. Titus

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