Posted by: Titus Presler | March 9, 2014

Anglican Commentary on Peshawar events published at VTS

The Center for Anglican Communion Studies (CACS) at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) in Alexandria has published a reflection, “Standing with Christians Under Pressure: Reflections from Pakistan,” on recent events in Peshawar in their monthly online Anglican Commentary series – you can link to it here.

Anglican Commentary began as a weekly column in January 2008 as CACS was coming together, and it became biweekly and then monthly in 2013.  Columns include reflections from many parts of the world by people connected with VTS, observations about wider Church events, and updates on Anglican studies developments within the seminary itself.  Trolling through the various entries is edifying.

I’m grateful to CACS Director the Rev. Dr. Robert Heaney and Program Coordinator and Interreligious Officer Claire Haymes for the invitation to write the reflection for March.

It follows up on the equally kind invitation from the center to speak last Oct. 29 on the impact of the Sept. 22 bombing at All Saints’ Church in Peshawar that killed 128 Christians and wounded many more.  There was a good turnout of students, faculty and others that evening in the room below the Bishop Payne Education Center that the seminary is using as its temporary Chapel.  Dr. Heaney chaired the evening and offered a moving closing prayer.  I was grateful for the introduction offered by good friend the Rev. Dr. William Sachs, director of the Interfaith Reconciliation Center at St. Stephen’s Church, Richmond, and currently teaching church history at VTS, who visited Edwardes College and the Diocese of Peshawar in January 2013 with Mr. Buck Blanchard, Mission Director for the Diocese of Virginia.  The Oct. 29 gathering was a fundraiser for the victims of the bombing, and altogether $5,500 was donated by attendees and other wellwishers – a generous contribution indeed.

Following is the address I offered, which was followed by a good Q/A session:

Comfort in the Body of Christ after the Peshawar Bombing

Address given by the Rev. Canon Dr. Titus Presler, Principal, Edwardes College, Peshawar, at Virginia Theological Seminary, Tuesday, 29 October 2013, 7:30 p.m.

Solidarity is the keynote of this evening as we gather in the wake of the bombing at All Saints’ Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, on September 22, a bombing that killed 128 children, women and men, and wounded 170. This is solidarity in the Body of Christ – you as one part of the Body of Christ are standing with, praying with, reaching out to another part of the Body of Christ in a place of anguish in another part of the world.

Writing to the Corinthians the apostle Paul blessed “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

The day after the Boston Marathon bombing last April I received a visit at Edwardes College from a delegation of clergy and spouses from the Diocese of Peshawar – they came to express their shock and condolence and to pray with me – this amid a death toll of 50,000 Pakistanis killed in the so-called war on terrorism since 9/11, most of them in our own province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which is coterminous with the Diocese of Peshawar.  Their experience of unceasing violence had not hardened them to the trauma of others across the globe – compassion fatigue had not hit them.  To the contrary, they felt keenly the suffering of others and were moved to reach out to me, who they knew had lived in greater Boston and had a daughter living in Cambridge.

Likewise you are gathering tonight to stand with, pray for and reach out to your sisters and brothers in Christ who live in that hard place amid hard realities – so that you may comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which you yourselves are comforted by God.  On behalf of the All Saints’ congregation, Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters, Edwardes College, and the ecumenical Christian community of Peshawar – I thank you for your presence, your concern, your prayer.

I’d like to give you some sense of some who were killed or injured in the blast. 

I first met Merab Naeem last year in trying to redress a wrong she had suffered.  After her 2-year associate’s degree at Edwardes she applied for our Bachelor of Science program in engineering.  She’d been admitted, but during the interviews she’d been criticized by two Muslim faculty members who criticized her essay because she’d written that she wished to attend Edwardes partly because it’s a church-sponsored college – you see, among our 2,800 students only about 200 are Christians, and among our 105 faculty, about 15 are Christians, so the College is not a Christian enclave but it reflects the wider society, where Christians are a minority.  A Christian lecturer brought Merab and her story to me as the Principal, so I heard her out and then addressed the matter with the two faculty members involved.  Merab was a quiet and composed person – she did not put herself forward, but she had inner confidence.  Her friends say that she was keen on reconciliation – she used to solve disputes among them, and she even engaged in interfaith dialogue among friends – a sensitive and sometimes dangerous enterprise in Peshawar.  She read a lot and enjoyed playing badminton.  Academically she stood second in her class at the end of the third year – and her ambition was to teach someday at Edwardes.  Merab was 19 when she was killed in the bombing.

Merab’s father was Naeem Nazir.   Age 42, he was the choir director at All Saints’ Church, and I recall his powerful charisma in leading that group in one of the transepts of the church, with harmonium and tabla.  My most vivid impression of him was during the 2,000-strong procession last Easter morning through the streets of the old city of Peshawar.  We started from the church at 4am singing Easter hymns in Urdu.  At the first station under Kohati Gate, Naeem, who had led the procession, called a jaloose, for 30 years – that is, since he was 12! – read aloud in Pashto Matthew 28.1-10, used as the Easter Vigil gospel around the world – the story where Jesus appears to the women and says, “Hail!” – and then he briefly preached on it  – all of this at high volume amplified by the public address system in the back of a pickup truck.  “This is our evangelism!” he said to me as we walked along together.  He noted that Pashto was important for reaching Old City residents, for many of them don’t know Urdu.   In the crowd as a whole, there was a sense of energy being released – energy pent up most of the year, when Christians do not feel safe discussing religion at all, still less bearing witness publicly to their faith.  Naeem was also a theological educator, for he was the provincial coordinator for the Open Theological Seminary, an extension program that leads to various certificates and degrees.  Naeem regularly taught three or four OTS courses at All Saints’ where he had about 35 students.  After the first bomb went off on the church grounds on September 22, Naeem tackled the other bomber and wrestled him to the ground – but that did not prevent the bomb from going off.  Naeem’s wife, Merab’s mother, was Mona – although not injured, Mona died not long after the blast – shocked to death at the killing of her husband and daughter.  Left alone is Shaloom, a 9th grader.

Another of our students killed in the blast was also named Merab – Merab William.  She was in the second year of a pre-medical program at Edwardes and wanted to be a dentist.  She had a penetrating gaze and a sharp sense of humor.  Last year she gave an outstanding presentation on gender discrimination in a class.  She enjoyed poetry, singing and playing the guitar.  She was 17 when she was killed.  Her brother Noel, age 24, one of our alums and about to finish medical school, was also killed.

Their father William Ghulam was killed in the blast.  I knew him fairly well because he translated into Urdu for me when I preached at All Saints’.  He would come over to the Principal’s Bungalow on Saturday afternoon to discuss the upcoming sermon.  He was headmaster of Government High School #4 – a post rarely given to a Christian.  Holding an MA in English and an MEd, he was working on an MPhil in Education and was planning to help us establish a Department of Education at Edwardes.  William translated for me in February when I preached on God showing Moses only his back and suggested that interreligious conflict could be avoided if all of us – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians – could recognize that we’re seeing not the face of God but only the back of God.  William translated for me on Good Friday when I preached on Jesus’ last words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and noted that those killed by a bomb at a checkpost that very morning hadn’t had the chance to pray those words and that faithfulness is the best preparation for dying suddenly, lest we die unprepared.  William’s wife Fahmida was badly injured in the blast and is recovering at the Combined Military Hospital just down the road from the College.  Their three other children – Sumbal, Joyce and Joel – survived without injury.

Shiza Riaz was the third of our students to be killed.  Age 20, she was majoring in social work and spent time tutoring 5 young children.  She was president of the youth chapter of the healing ministry of the diocese.  A cousin of hers was also killed in the blast.

One of our injured alumni was Asher Gohar, nephew of two members of the diocesan staff.  Age 21, he was working on a further degree.  He suffered broken teeth and a broken arm and has metallic beads from the bomb embedded in his neck, left shoulder and stomach.  He’s vice president of the All Saints’ Youth Group.

The needs of the All Saints’ community and the Christian community as a whole are major after the bombing, and we are grateful to the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation in Richmond for being willing to be the tax-exempt conduit for funds that may be contributed.  The many injured need help with their complex medical care.  Counseling is needed for the many who have been traumatized.  Families that have lost their primary breadwinners need longterm support.  Orphaned children need support with the families that take them in.  The Diocese of Peshawar is establishing an endowment that can address these issues.  Edwardes College has established the Edwardes College Compassion Appeal to assist families with both short-term and longterm needs.  The Diocese hopes to found a Peace and Reconciliation Center at All Saints’ Church that will work longterm on interfaith relations.  The College hopes to institute a curriculum for interfaith relations and reconciliation.  Faith Friends, an inter-religious fellowship in the city, is planning an event that will address the underlying issues in a public forum.

And what are the underlying issues?  They are many.  Pakistan is an Islamic republic, as you know, established in 1947 as a haven for south Asia’s Muslims as Britain prepared for the independence of the subcontinent.  Islam is the state religion, but the Constitution also provides that “every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion,” and all religious groups have the right to manage their own institutions.

Unfortunately, despite being the overwhelming majority, 97%, Muslims in Pakistan have retained a minority mentality of suspicion and competition, and over time all religious minorities have been increasingly disabled.  Christians number about 4 million, they constitute about 2.3% of the total population (up from 0.4% in 1900), and they are the nation’s largest religious minority, followed by Hindus.   The disabilities under which they labor mean that most Christians are very poor, confined to menial labor, and have little hope of economic or professional advancement.  Blasphemy laws are invoked spuriously against Christians in order to keep them down or drive them out of neighborhoods in order to seize their property, and you are probably familiar with the names of recent victims such as Asia Bibi, Rimsha Masih, and the Badami Bagh neighborhood in Lahore that was burned out earlier this year.

Religious extremism is probably the most internationally known feature of Pakistan today, and it fuses easily with the religio-political militancy of the Taliban.  Older people in Pakistan bemoan this extremism, for it was unknown in their younger years.  They trace it back to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which brought to power an aggressively conservative Shiite government there.  The equally conservative Wahabi Sunni government of Saudi Arabia felt challenged, and ever since then Pakistan and other locales have been battlegrounds for the proxy contest between the Iranians and the Saudis for religio-ideological hegemony.  In claiming responsibility for the All Saints’ bombing, a Taliban group said that it was in retaliation for United States drone strikes in Waziristan, which is part of our province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and that is doubtless true.  It is also true that, fulfilling previous threats, the September 22 bombing occurred exactly a year and a day after the burning of St. Paul’s Church in Mardan during the infamous Day of Love for the Prophet on September 21, 2012, which was called in reaction to the equally infamous “Innocence of Muslims” video that caused unrest throughout the Muslim world.  It is also true that the Taliban want to bring down the Pakistani state, and this attack and innumerable others work toward that by sowing anxiety and creating doubt about the government’s level of control.

So it is that religious conflict, domestic rivalry, and geopolitical contestation all had their role in the deaths of Merab, her father Naeem, and the other Merab, her brother Noel and their father William – and so many others on September 22.  The Christian community terms them martyrs, and so they are: coming out of church on that Sunday, they were witnesses to their faith in the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and they were killed because of their Christian identity.  In the coming celebration of All the Saints, we can be confident that they have joined the company of the saints in light, where they will grow in God’s grace from one degree of glory to another.

Let us pray:

O creative God, you placed us in a garden,

but we have made it a place of desolation.

Forgiving God, we’ve resolved time and again to mend our ways,

but we become chauvinist and competitive.

Hopeful God, you offer us visions of a reconciled humanity,

but we turn your dreams into nightmares.

Healing God, we lift up before you those killed and injured at All Saints’ Church, Peshawar:

may the injured recover,

may the dead rise in glory.

We offer our commitment and our service to your suffering people,

that peace may break out in Pakistan

and reconciliation spread like a healing balm on its wounded people.

This we pray through our friend and reconciling Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Frontier News, the monthly publication of the Diocese of Peshawar contains interviews with bomb blast victims, beginning with the September 2013 Special Edition and up to the present in March 2014.  Click here to access editions.

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