For over 60 years All Saints’ Church in the Old City of Peshawar – originally Anglican and now a parish of the ecumenical Church of Pakistan – has organized a predawn procession through the city before dawn on Easter Sunday.
This year was no exception. Spirits were high as several hundred parishioners gathered at 4am to ready themselves for the outing. Members of one family were deputed to carry three crosses in the procession. Leaders had identifying badges. A pickup truck outfitted with a sound system idled for the “Go” signal. Candles were distributed to all participants, who included equal numbers of men and women, and as they were lit the church courtyard glowed.
Pastor Ejaz Gill started the procession off with a prayer and several rousing shouts of “Khudawan Yesu Masih ki . . .” with the crowd roaring back the final word “Jai!” – an expression of enthusiasm so that the full slogan means “Victory to the Lord Jesus Christ!” or “Praise to the Lord Jesus Christ!”
Naturally security was part of the preparation as well, and the municipality had provided a considerable detachment of police in bulletproof vests for the occasion – maybe 30-40 officers altogether, with some in front, some along the sides and some behind the procession.
We turned into the darkened narrow streets of the Old City with an ever increasing crowd in full-throated resurrection songs and slogans behind us, candles alight. A frequent song was “Alleluia! Bolo Yesu zinda ho gaya!” meaning, “Alleluia! Proclaim that Jesus is alive again!”
At the first station under Kohati Gate, All Saints’ choirmaster and leader of the Easter procession, or jaloos (pronounced jah-LOOSE), for 30 years, read aloud in Urdu Matthew 28.1-10, used as the Easter Vigil gospel around the world, and then commented on it in Pashto – all of this at high volume amplified by the public address system in the back of the pickup truck. Thus was the Easter Gospel proclaimed and preached at the heart of Muslim Peshawar in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of 2013.
“This is our evangelism!” said the choirmaster as we walked along together. He noted that the periodic readings and comments in Pashto were important for reaching Old City residents, for whom Pashto, not Urdu, is overwhelmingly the first language. In the crowd as a whole, there was a sense that pent-up energy was being released – energy that is pent up most of the year, when Christians do not feel safe discussing religion at all, still less bearing witness to their faith.
As the procession went on the crowd grew larger until it stretched back as far as the eye could see, with experienced participants estimating its final total at about 2,500. It also became very ecumenical, with contingents of Pentecostals, Roman Catholics and others joining, for this is the one major jaloos in Peshawar. All ages were represented, with youth being especially prominent by the end, and the proportion of women and girls was impressive in what could be seen as a dangerous outing.
Altogether the jaloos route covered about 3.5 kilometers, and completing it, with pauses along the way, took about 1.5 hours – from 4:30 to 6am. Before the onset of the current insecurity five or six years ago the route circled the entire Old City and took over 3 hours to complete. But the police made a convincing case that securing such a long route was difficult and that it was important to reduce the risk. It is still probably the longest and largest Easter procession in Pakistan.
At the start of this morning’s procession it was hard to identify an audience, because the thousands of residents among the shuttered shops were asleep, or else grumbling about being awakened by the uproar. Presently shops were opening and proprietors were gazing out on the spectacle. Construction workers were busy early, so they could see and hear what was happening. At one intersection where traffic – on foot, bicycle, cart and car – had stopped for the procession to pass by the choirmaster took opportunity to explain through the PA system what it was all about, how Jesus had risen from the dead 2,000 years ago and what that meant.
As with any such procession, it was not easy to keep order. The pickup had to stop from time to time for the main body of the procession to catch up. People from the middle on back had their own hymns and chants going. Toward the end some of the youth began “playing the fool” and so on. Overall, though, it went off very well. It inspired the Christian folk. It bore witness to the world. It was indeed evangelism.
The jaloos ended at the old Edwardes School adjacent to All Saints’, where everyone had a simple breakfast. People then went home to prepare for the 8am and 11am services at the church, which the pastor estimated would draw 700-800 parishioners.
When I arrived at St. John’s Cathedral in a different part of the city at 7:30 to preside at the English-language service at 8 there were still hundreds of people out on the Cathedral Lawn finishing breakfast and visiting with one another after the doings there. About 1,000 people had attended the ceremonies, which began with a procession within the diocesan compound at about 4 and then followed with a sunrise Easter eucharist in the Cathedral. Still later when I returned for lunch it was clear that the 10am service had been equally massive.
So there you have it: a Christian community in an adverse environment that is nevertheless robust, ecumenically involved, and witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning.