Posted by: Titus Presler | May 17, 2019

Court decision in Edwardes College controversy favors church’s authority, so resolution may be near

All friends of the Christian community in Pakistan and friends of Edwardes College and the Diocese of Peshawar are gladdened by the news that the Peshawar High Court has, in response to a suit filed by the diocese, directed the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and several provincial government departments to cease interfering in the affairs of Edwardes College.

Here is a link to the Anglican Communion News Service’s article about the decision.  Here is a link to an article in Dawn, one of the national newspapers.

The court’s decision is an important step toward resolving the church’s 45-year struggle to regain control of its college after an illegal usurpation of the church’s role by the provincial governor in 1974.  We hope and pray that the High Court’s decision of May 15 will put an end to the difficult legal wrangling that has characterized the conflict.  However, the court has given the governor and the government departments two weeks in which to file responses to the order, so it is possible that full resolution of the case is still in the future.

This development fairly shouts out to me in light of the fact that it was my advocacy and promotion of the church’s position in the matter that prompted ISI agents in February 2014 to physically beat me, tear the visa out of my passport and threaten me with death if I did not leave the country.

It is so good to have the court affirm and vindicate the church’s insistence that Edwardes is an institution founded, sponsored and owned by the church and that therefore the bishop, the diocese and a church-appointed board of governors are the legal authorities in the life of the college.

At the same time, the decision reawakens my feelings around the matter – love for the college, longing for its community, and grief for how a stimulating and fulfilling inter-religious ministry there ended for me.

My good friend Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters, who is bishop of Peshawar and president bishop of the Church of Pakistan, has been in touch about the situation.  Here’s an excerpt from his note:

Again we went through havoc, we are particularly sad about the attitude of our Governor and the Education Department, their whole focus is to suppress the presence of the Church in our Province. I cannot predict what will be their next move but at least the High Court new decision is with us. Every day a new challenge targeting our existence and identity. Keep us in your prayers.

‘Targeting our existence and identity’ – that phrase encapsulates the situation of the Christian community in Pakistan over the past decade or so as religious extremism has made the situation of all religious minorities precarious – Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and even Shia Muslims and Muslim groups regarded by the majority as heretical.  The bishop has our prayers.

This week’s court decision is a kind of epilogue to the court’s critically important judgment of 22 March 2016, referenced in the document, which declared that Edwardes is a private institution under the auspices of the church and not a public-sector institution accountable to the provincial government.  This is the understanding for which we were arguing in the college charter negotiations and subsequent court case in 2013-14.  Yet since 2016 the government has nevertheless been at the helm, a situation that commenced illegally in 1974.  It appears that in recent months the diocese and bishop were driven by the government’s aggressiveness to appoint, wisely, the church-overseen Board of Governors that is authorized by the college’s 1943 constitution.  It is this move that appears to have prompted the government to redouble its aggressiveness, which in turn prompted the church’s additional lawsuit.

It is so good that the court is tilting toward the church on the basis of the 2016 decision.  We hope and pray that the court will hold firm in any further legal maneuvering.

Here is further background for understanding the dynamics of this long-running situation:

  • The conflict is not between the diocese and the federal government, but between the diocese and the provincial government.  As noted by a Christian representative in one of the news stories, Prime Minister Imran Khan has stated that the college should be under church auspices.

 

  • The provincial-federal distinction is muddied, however, by the fact that provinces in Pakistan have two separate governance structures, one elected and one appointed.  Each province has an elected provincial assembly, and the majority party, or the plurality party in coalition with others, forms the provincial government and elects the chief minister.  The governor, on the other hand, is appointed at the federal level by the prime minister of the nation.  The governor has oversight of federal matters within the province, which in the case of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa includes the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the border and, obviously, the ongoing military conflict in that area.  Higher education around the country is regulated by the federal Higher Education Commission (HEC), hence the governor is typically the chancellor of higher education institutions in the province, with the on-the-ground administrator being the vice chancellor.  It is on this pattern that in 1974 it was the governor (not the chief minister) who usurped the role of chair of Edwardes’ board of governors.  Edwardes being a college rather than a university meant that the governor installed himself as board chair rather than as chancellor.

 

  • It is true that the college was never nationalized, as a Christian representative is quoted as saying in one of the news stories.  What happened in 1974 was that the then-governor simply installed by fiat a new board of governors with the governor in the chair, the bishop as vice chair, and a majority of government functionaries and a minority of church representatives.  The matter of fiat is important because the many other Islamist-motivated nationalizations of the 1970s around the country were carried out according to procedures laid out in a nationalization law that had been passed.  The governor-led board installed in 1974 was, by contrast, simply announced through a memo by the then-governor.  There was no  reference to the nationalization law, nor was an ordinance proposed, for which the nation’s constitution provides a route for legislative endorsement.  Therefore we have long argued that the 1974 action has no legal standing.  The church never accepted the new situation, but it went along with it only because it was dangerous to resist it.

 

  • Readers may wonder how the church’s opponents in the province could feel they had legal grounds to challenge the church’s authority over the college.  Here are just a few examples:

– Yes, there is the college constitution of around 1943, but its provenance and authority were questioned.  To the contrary, by any historical measure it is a legal and authoritative document.

– Yes, the church has title to the land on which the college is located, but opponents claimed, falsely and without evidence, that various parcels had been paid for with government money.

– You’re familiar with the aphorism, ‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law.’  Opponents of the church seemed to believe that the nearly 40 years of operation with the governor in the chair and a government majority on the board justified the situation.  We argued, to the contrary, that the persistence of an illegal situation does not legitimize it.  No squatter’s rights, as it were, should be recognized.

  • The identical conflict of 2013-14 between church and government was prompted by our initiative to become a degree-awarding institution, or a university, rather than have our degrees awarded through the public-sector University of Peshawar.  That required a charter, which obviously would set forth the governance of the college.  In drafting a charter the church and we in college leadership sought to rectify the 1974 usurpation by providing for a church-majority board of governors chaired by the bishop of Peshawar as the chancellor.  HEC guidelines specified, after all, that the head of the sponsoring entity of any degree-awarding institution must be the chancellor of the institution, so this accorded with the federal standard.  It was the church-majority proposal that the provincial government resisted, ultimately with violence.  Hence the effort to become a university stalled indefinitely.  Previously the provincial government had been so impressed with how things were going at Edwardes that they granted us Rupees 300 million (equivalent at the time to US$3 million) to help fund the faculty, library and facilities upgrading necessary for HEC approval.  But a chartered church majority on the board was a bridge too far for them.  If the Peshawar High Court order stands and the provincial government stands down, maybe the degree-awarding initiative can be restarted.  I hope and pray so, for Edwardes’ unique quality and heritage equips it to make a much enhanced contribution to higher education in the province.

Missional takeaways from all this somewhat arcane legalese and academic-ese?

– Support for persecuted Christians is an important responsibility of Christian mission.

– Christian sponsorship of education at all levels is a vital mission contribution.

– Supporting Christian institutions is a vital aspect of supporting Christian presence, especially where Christians are a minority under pressure.

– Deep engagement with institutional dynamics is often a vital missionary contribution.

One correction to the ACNS story: Edwardes is far from being ‘the one remaining Christian institution in Pakistan’!  There are scores of institutions in the form of church-sponsored and church-run schools and medical facilities throughout the country.  In the Diocese of Peshawar alone there are St. Elizabeth’s School in Peshawar, Mission Hospital in Peshawar, Pennell School and Pennell Hospital in Bannu, and various other institutions, and the same goes for other churches.  Higher education was indeed especially hard hit by the nationalizations of the 1970s, with a number of colleges taken over by the government, including Forman Christian College in Lahore, founded and run by the Presbyterian Church USA.  However, Forman was de-nationalized in the first decade of the 2000s and has been flourishing ever since, again under Presbyterian auspices.  What is true is that Edwardes is one remaining institution of higher education owned by the Church of Pakistan.

 

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Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing these insights Titus – and in particular for identifying the missional implications.


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