• Peshawar emeritus bishop describes anguish of Sept. 22 attack
• Sees attack as “defining moment” for future of Pakistan’s Christians
• Commends Diocese of Peshawar for response to catastrophe
• Probes speculations about motives behind bombing
• Appreciates response of Muslims, other churches and government
• Assesses strengths and weaknesses of NGOs’ response
• Exhorts Western “faith-siblings” to relationship of mutual responsibility
• Exhorts Pakistani Christians to unity and socio-economic empowerment
On Feb. 10 I received a remarkable document from Bishop Munawar Rumalshah, Bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Peshawar, with the following note: “I finally picked up some strength to write something on the Peshawar tragedy, of which I am sending you a copy. Please use it as you will.” Pressing matters here in Islamabad were preoccupying at the time, but I now seek to give it as wide an audience as possible. On Sunday, March 9, Bp. Mano will celebrate in Peshawar Cathedral 20 years since his consecration; he served as Diocesan for 15 years, from 1994 to 2009.
“Manifesto” is my term for the document, not Bp. Mano’s. I use it because his statement brings together moving descriptions of the suffering of victims with historical analysis and bold challenges for the world Church, non-governmental organizations, and the Christian community in Pakistan. The document is long, but I encourage readers to continue to the end. It is the most significant document that I have seen coming out of the catastrophe of 9/22/13. The manifesto was written in Epiphanytide, but it is edifying as well in this Lenten time after Ash Wednesday – and at any time.
PRAY: AND BE BLOWN INTO PIECES!
The REALITY at All Saints’ Church, Peshawar, on Sunday, 22 September 2013
This cataclysmic act committed by two suicide bombers shook the very foundations of our people and changed the course not only of their lives but of the whole Christian community in Pakistan. It happened after the morning worship of Holy Communion while they were sharing an agape fellowship in the small compound of this historic church. The church was built in 1883 as the first church building of its kind, being designed like a mosque and especially for the use of the native Christians of the local area. Even at that time its foundations were filled with the blood of nine local Christian martyrs. It is located in the heart of the ancient historic city of Peshawar and in the neighbourhood of the famous Qissa Khawani (story tellers) bazaar, which was the hub of the travellers of ancient times when entering from Khyber Pass onto the Silk Route.
My relationship with this ‘gharana’ (family) goes back almost quarter of a century. I have shared their joys and sorrows during these years. I have been their friend and father-figure. Many of them I Baptized, Confirmed and Married. It has been one of the two largest parishes in the Diocese of Peshawar and a bastion of indigenous Christianity in this famous border area of Pakistan/Afghanistan. Most of the families can claim their lineage in this area for well over a century. One of the most celebrated aspects of their Christian witness has always been their Easter procession, very often numbering up to five thousand young and old, women and children, singing and praying through the winding and narrow streets of the neighbourhood. Almost all of them speak and communicate in the local Pakhtun language and are also well versed in Pakhtun culture. So they have never felt themselves to be either outsiders or unfamiliar with the local customs and traditions. For this reason they were always open and at ease with their Muslim neighbours.
This horrendous tragedy claimed nearly 300 victims of all ages, with 117 passing away and 162 receiving very serious and other injuries, a large number of them being women and children. It is further painful to note that 16 children between the ages of 4 and 18 years lost both their parents. And 32 children in their teens and below lost their only earning member of the family (father). All these may appear to be mere statistics, but there are real and heartbreaking stories behind each of the victims. I have no words or even emotional energy to narrate most of these, but maybe just a glimpse of some of them:
• I remember the words of a six-year-old girl who came to me along with her aunt after worship at All Saints’ a couple of Sundays later saying, “Bishop jee, my Mama and Papa have gone to Heaven.” Tears rolled down my cheeks. I had no words, except simply to hug and kiss her.
• A young father approached me saying, “I am so fortunate that my young daughter was lifted up to Heaven from God’s Church here on earth.”
• I vividly remember when I first met Khalida in the Intensive Care Unit, struggling with life and death. She had lost an eight-month-old baby in her womb (the youngest martyr). She kissed my hands and with tears rolling said, “Khudawand ki tamjeed ho” (Praise be to God). One wonders how any one can utter such words in her condition.
• I remember Insar Gohar, who lost his two children and mother, his wife seriously injured and so also his older brother, a teenaged nephew and niece (paralyzed) – seven victims, all in the same blood family.
• In another case of a blood family, five children between the ages of 7 and 14 years were orphaned, their parents Nazir and Rehana both passing away on that fateful day.
It’s obvious that one cannot go into details of each victim, but let it be said that each case has its own pain and suffering, especially as quite a number of the victims are still struggling to regain their full health and normalcy of life. There are some who have lost their limbs and others body parts, and some are still waiting for further surgeries. For the survivors, it was an experience of having been to Hell and Back.
This ghastly act of human vultures caused a massive pandemonium with broken and shredded human bodies lying everywhere. There were naked female bodies as well as numerous children entrapped who had just come down from their Sunday School classes. It took quite a while before ambulances could arrive, but the injured were being rushed through different means of transport to the nearest facility, Lady Reading Hospital, which is the only place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province with a Trauma Centre. But this incident was way beyond its capacity, and this tragically caused further deaths. The hospital unfortunately was just not equipped to deal with an emergency of this magnitude, even though the staff all did their level best. The scene in the hospital in the immediate aftermath is almost beyond description. There were injured lying on the floor of the Trauma Centre, with blood and water flowing on the floor. Some patients were lying on the floor for lack of beds, and in one instance a father and two of his daughters were hanging on to the same bed. After the initial confusion, some patients were moved to other parts of the same hospital and to other hospitals in the city. It does raise a very serious issue for the civil authorities, that this province which is most vulnerable to terrorist attacks needs a proper and well equipped Trauma Centre urgently.
One of the immediate tasks after transporting the injured was to take care of the physical remains of the departed souls. This of course was the most emotionally charged and painful part of the whole episode. It was decided to move the dead bodies, some directly from the tragic site to the nearby more spacious Roman Catholic Church compound, and others were brought there as they expired in the hospital the same night. In this helpless situation many volunteers and well-wishers came forward to give a helping hand. Many of such people were of Muslim faith, most notable amongst them members of the Al-Khidmat Foundation [the charitable outreach of the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party], who played a key role in providing coffins. Our Muslim brethren helped greatly in digging graves during the night and supplied food and other amenities to the affected people. The whole Christian community deeply appreciated this expression of solidarity and service. It was rightly decided by our Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters (of course in consultation with the others concerned) that the maximum number of burials should take place the same night. This was both to avoid any further attacks even on the coffins (such inhumane and shameful acts occasionally taking place in our situation) and also because there were hardly any available places in the mortuaries. The Diocesan Clergy were supported so willingly by other Clergy from the Roman Catholic and other Churches. So this painful ritual went on throughout the night, and most of the dead bodies were laid to rest. The following morning Bishop’s young Chaplain hugged me with tears rolling down and screamingly said to me that he had helped to bury about a hundred people during the night. Of course no description on paper can ever express the pain of such a situation, but let it be said that people of all ages and faiths joined hands to honour our departed dear ones by committing their physical remains in a respectful manner.
The question on everybody’s mind is: WHY this horrendous act? The real answer of course is known only to the evildoers who did it. The rest of us can only speculate and conjecture. The most obvious answer seems to lie in a very subjective feeling that because we are Christians, this was bound to happen to us, sooner or later. We are the sitting ducks, so this must be it. This kind of mindset has been built up over decades of prejudicial and discriminatory treatment by the majority Muslim community in Pakistan. We are often perceived as a ‘fly on the wall’ to be smacked down at will. Some consider us as Kafirs (infidels) and as adherents of a ‘foreign religion,’ There are others who label us as ‘agents’ of the West, which according to them is all Christian. So in a way it’s the old Christian-versus-Muslim equation, going back to the Crusades. Such an attitude inevitably leads to the slogan of victory and dominance of Islam, not only in Pakistan, but also throughout the world. This was further strengthened by a statement made by a prominent Taliban leader saying that his group did not commit this attack on the Church, but whoever did it did the right thing in accordance with the Sharia (Islamic law). Its public expression was made through a massive bomb blast in the neighbourhood of All Saints’ Church on the Sunday following the incident, exactly while the morning worship was going on. This of course caused further shock waves in our beleaguered community. Another answer to the WHY is the common understanding that this must have been retaliation against the drone attacks by the Americans, the idea being that attacking Christians would cause America to take notice of the situation and stop the drone attacks. The cynic’s view is that there must be elements in Pakistani society who are keen to keep terrorism alive so that American dollars keep pouring in. There are some who think that this could have been a negative reaction by Taliban groups to the desire of the All Parties Conference(APC) to enter into a meaningful dialogue with them. There are those who always see the hidden hands of the intelligence agencies, either local or foreign, behind such ignominious incidents.
To sum up, it is reasonable to say that we the ‘ordinary’ will never know the truth, although always wishing for the truth. However, I do want to make a very personal observation here, that Christians in this province have never been as much a direct target as they have been in other parts of Pakistan, such as the Province of Punjab. During my association with this area such attacks have occurred mainly as local reactions to the abuse of Islam in other countries, such as the cartoon issue from Denmark  and the Youtube film insulting the Prophet of Islam from the USA . On the whole the local culture and people in this province have been courteous and kind to the small Christian community. Such sentiments were vividly expressed by the generosity, love and care of the local Muslim neighbourhood in the immediate aftermath of the incident.
It was no surprise that ordinary people of all faiths and backgrounds from all parts of the country responded to this tragedy with loving hearts and compassion. One can narrate so many beautiful stories expressing this relationship. There were Christian individuals and groups who not only expressed their own pain and anger in their respective places, but also physically visited us offering their embrace and love. There was massive awareness and emotional feeling that we are all one in Christ. The civil authorities at both provincial and federal levels responded to the situation responsibly and with sincerity of purpose. The senior officials made personal visits and helped in various ways. The Provincial Government was quick to respond with financial help, by the issuance of direct cheques to the victims. This immediate help was much appreciated. The Prime Minister of Pakistan made a visit and announced the setting up of an Endowment Fund. The terms and conditions of this fund have not been worked out as yet, but we hope it will not take too long.
The main players in this scenario inevitably turned out to be the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). They came from far and wide with their respective briefs and concerns. Most of them approached the situation without any reference to the local Diocese, the Church family to which the victims belonged. This was good in that they could operate independently, but it was bad in the sense that it became a ‘free-for-all syndrome.’ The NGOs chose their own contacts in the area and went to the needy whom their contact person knew or favoured. This random approach caused quite a bit of negative reaction, especially by those who were left out by them, but the anger and negativity continuously fell upon the local Diocese. The most difficult and emotional part of this service was delivered by the NGOs who primarily took care of the medical needs of the victims. There are some wonderful examples of the care and compassion shared, especially by a body like Bishop John Joseph Trust, which brought hope to many broken lives. But sadly a kind of competition amongst the NGOs to secure ‘clients’ also raised its ugly head. There were quite a few incidents of this nature, both hidden and open, which caused further pain. I know of a case where two NGOs were vigorously coercing the family of an injured person, each suggesting to take the victim outside Peshawar to a place of their respective choice. Unfortunately, this kind of unsavoury atmosphere inevitably led to the relatives of the victims ‘selling their dead.’ On the whole, one can sum it by saying that the NGOs brought a lot of care and help but also caused lots of confusion and greed. They almost turned it into an open market of making deals with people’s emotions. Of course, the most questionable aspect of their ministry is their lack of accountability to the local context. They only seem to be answerable to their foreign donors. Nevertheless, on balance one has to thank the many NGOs who expressed their commitment in this unfortunate and tragic situation.
It is appropriate to remind one and all that this incident did not take place in a public park or market place. It happened to a group of worshippers within the four walls of the church compound. Thus they were an integral part of the Church family, the Diocese of Peshawar, Church of Pakistan. And the overall responsibility of their well-being naturally fell upon the shoulders of the Diocesan family. I can say with honesty and certitude that all of them have done their best to handle this difficult situation. The whole administrative staff has worked tirelessly under the able leadership of their Bishop to bring healing and hope to the injured and bereaved. Of course, there must be instances where things did not go according to the expectations of the victims, but that is not to say that it was due to the lack of their commitment and integrity. The story has not ended, for this responsibility of the Diocese to the victims will go on for years, maybe even to a couple of decades.
It is sad that some people spread false rumours and played a blame game on the local Bishop. It was so hurtful that some foreign NGOs published the photograph of our Diocesan Bishop with a caption of ‘Corrupt’. It is abominable, unethical and disgusting for people sitting thousands of miles away to make such judgments on hear-say without ever appreciating the reality of such a complicated situation. Unfortunately, except for a few exceptions, even our Pakistani Christian expatriates make similar assumptions. I wish they would be more mindful of the reality of these situations, rather than making sweeping statements about the corruption and incompetence of Church in Pakistan. I do hope and pray that there will be a new spirit of understanding on these sensitive issues of our community life. It also needs to be mentioned here that Peshawar Diocese is deeply appreciative of the prayers, good wishes and financial help of our foreign friends whose communications have meant so much for one and all. We hope this will open up new doors of relationship within our worldwide Christian family.
We finally move to ask the ultimate question: What is the future of the small Christian community in Pakistan – is there a way forward for it? I am sure we will have different answers in response. But let me start by reminding ourselves that this was one of the ugliest incidents of terrorism against any community in Pakistan, and certainly the worst ever against the Christians in Pakistan. Such an incident must compel all Pakistanis to seriously reflect on the health of the nation, and the Christians to recognize that this tragedy has to be the defining moment for their future. It has obviously created a lot of unrest and a deep sense of insecurity. It has caused a huge wave of wanting to migrate to the West. We all know that this is not the answer, but people are finding themselves engulfed in panic. Interestingly, there has been very little sympathetic understanding by Western governments of this plight. There have been instances of cold-blooded refusals by some of the visa-issuing authorities.
Let me also address here our Faith-siblings in the West, asking them how they wish to relate with us in the future. The Western Christians must recognize the vulnerability of the minority Christian presence in the majority Islamic lands, Pakistan being the prime example of this scenario. It leads to the question as to how we can build up an acceptable and effective face of the Gospel Community in such an environment. Perhaps the simple answer is to build a viable community, not only in terms of faith, but also in economic and social terms. Indeed, it has to be a wholistic approach. In order to move forward on this road, we the Pakistani Christians must come together under the umbrella of unity of purpose as one community, beyond our own denominational and personal interests. Our common cause has to be equipping our small community with resources to build up an economic base, which naturally would lead to social acceptance. This has to be the most essential and fundamental message of this massacre. Our Western faith siblings must equally recognize that any relationship with us has to be based on the principle of mutual responsibility and inter-dependence and not on piece-meal terms or using the ‘recipe’ of the NGOs. It has to be a living relationship within the One Holy and Catholic Church.
Let us remind ourselves that the code of life, which is desired of us all Christians everywhere and which makes us unique people of faith, has been expressed to us through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, especially reflected in the Beatitudes and indeed the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. This is as much true in Pakistan as it is true of other Christians throughout the world.
As for the departed souls of the All Saints’ Church, Peshawar episode, one can only remember them in the words of the Revelation of John:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!’ (Revelation 7:9-10)
Out of this massacre, let the Epiphany message of Hope and Reconciliation be the beacon of light not only for the victims of All Saints’ Church, Peshawar, but also for God’s people everywhere in the world, especially those who are being marginalized and persecuted. Our last wish and prayer has to be in the words of the Christians throughout the ages: “Maranatha! (Come Lord Jesus). Amen.”
Bishop Emeritus of Peshawar
Church of Pakistan
Cell: +92- 300- 859 3725