Attending Christian worship in Islamabad has been refreshing in these early days of Lent, and the state of the Church is encouraging as seen in two particular parishes.
On Ash Wednesday I attended the 6pm English service at Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic Church. Astonishing was the number of parishioners pouring out of the church from the earlier Urdu liturgy. We stood for 15 minutes watching the river of people coming forth from both the striking modern sanctuary itself and from the hall below, where the service had been broadcast – altogether over 1,000 people, estimated one longtime parishioner.
All had ashed crosses on their foreheads, and no one appeared about to wipe them off before going into the city, so they were ready to bear witness to their Christian identity in public.
As in other Pakistani congregations, the parishioners were so multi-generational that one would be hard put to identify a preponderance of any age group. Children, teens, young adults, young marrieds, middle aged, and older folks were all present in roughly equal proportions, though it might be fair to say that half the people were age 30 and under. This is one of the great strengths of Pakistani churches – at least that I have attended over the years – both in the present and for their future health.
The English service was much smaller, of course, but the attendance of more than 100 was one that many parishes in the West would rejoice in on an Ash Wednesday evening. Most of the English-language attendees were Pakistani, with a small number of foreigners present from various countries. Words of hymns, a mixture of traditional hymns like “Forty days and forty nights” and contemporary compositions, were projected on a screen, as were the words of the liturgy.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi includes the twin cities, all of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FATA, the Northern Areas and Azad Kashmir. Statistical sources vary, but it seems the diocese may have 19 parishes and about 31 clergy for 180,000 Roman Catholics, which works out to about 5,800 parishioners per priest, a better proportion than at some earlier periods in the diocese’s history. The diocese administers 11 schools and 2 higher secondary institutions.
On the First Sunday of Lent it was a joy to attend a Church of Pakistan parish: St. Thomas, an obviously vital and healthy congregation with two Urdu services on Sunday, plus services in English and Korean. (No website, but here at least is a picture of the interesting and attractive modern brick structure.)
The English service at 11am had well over 100 people in attendance, the majority being Pakistanis with a fair proportion of foreigners from West Africa, Europe, USA and Iran, among other places. The liturgy was the eucharistic rite of the Church of Pakistan, the denomination formed in 1970 of the union of Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodsts and Presbyterians, and which today is the largest non-Roman church in Pakistan.
The preacher was Anthony Aijaz Lamuel, General Secretary of the Pakistan Bible Society (PBS), which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013. The British and Foreign Bible Society began work on the subcontinent in 1804, but its Punjab Auxiliary, from which PBS traces its origin, was started in 1863. The PBS website carries a full history of the society’s development, a few facts are noteworthy: In 2012 PBS printed and distributed 6,521,736 scripture “units,” of which 36,181 were entire Bibles. The group is now branching out into scholarly works about the Bible in Urdu, and in 2013 it opened a Bible Museum in Lahore.
Heartening is the fact that in December 2013 the Government of Pakistan issued an 8-rupee postage stamp commemorating “150 Years of Faithful Service” of the Pakistan Bible Society. It features a stack of printed Bibles and the inscription: “Providing The Word of God in the language people can understand” – a motto that encapsulates 2,000 years of scripture translation and distribution. The project, approved by the Prime Minister, initially projected 100,000 stamps, but ended up with 500,000 – an encouraging upbeat in the Pakistan of today.
Singing was spirited, aided by a choir and instrumentalists who included a pianist, a guitarist – and a harmonica player! Children went out for Sunday School early in the service and returned for communion, as in many congregations around the world. People visited with each other outside the church after greeting the clergy. Tea in the undercroft was sparsely attended, but it was there for anyone who wanted it.
Security was heavy outside the gates of each of these parishes and a good deal better organized than in Peshawar. Armed guards, several of them in each case, frisked all who sought entrance, and they were strict about forbidden items such as penknives, all of which was reassuring. The bomb blast in an Islamabad courthouse on Monday, March 3, might have led to enhanced security measures being taken, but the system appeared to have been in place for some time. In any case, it was good to see conscientious monitoring.