Over the past days there has been considerable attention to the fact that May 1 (in the USA) and May 2 (in Pakistan) mark the fifth anniversary of the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan in 2011.
The event was especially startling for me because it was on May 1 that year that I landed in Peshawar to take up my duties as principal of Edwardes College. When I awoke from my first night’s sleep I checked the New York Times website, as is my habit wherever I am in the world, and there was the gigantic headline announcing bin Laden’s death.
We had a meeting of the Management Team of the college scheduled for about 9am that morning. Some of my colleagues had not earlier heard the news. Both those who had heard the news earlier and those who were just then hearing it were astounded that bin Laden had been living, “hidden in plain sight,” in Abbottabad, a well known city several hours from Peshawar. I myself had visited Abbottabad with Bishop Peters of the Diocese of Peshawar a few months earlier during a visit to Pakistan in which I was discerning whether I was called to be at Edwardes.
It was a vivid way to begin the first day of my new ministry at Edwardes College. It highlighted the inter-cultural issues and the inter-religious issues that had drawn me to that work in that setting. It emphasized that I was on a front line.
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On 2 May 2016, the day of the event in Pakistan, I wrote a blogpost, “A death in the diocese,” in which I discussed not the political dimension of the the event but its religious and ecclesial dimensions:
It was startling to see the news midmorning today – Monday, 2 May – that Osama bin Laden was killed yesterday “deep inside Pakistan,” as President Obama put it. Abbottabad is indeed deep inside Pakistan, several hours almost due east from Peshawar and the Afghan border and, as news reports have noted, just about 30 miles northeast of the capital of Islamabad.
It was sobering to realize the raid occurred the same day I arrived to begin ministry in Peshawar in this province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Abbottabad likewise is located. Said daughter Charlotte in a conversation this evening, “The grace of God will keep you where the will of God has called you.” And that is sufficient.
I went to Abbottabad during my visit to the Diocese of Peshawar in January as I accompanied Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters to a wedding in St. Luke’s Church at which he officiated and I preached. Abbottabad is an attractive hill town at over 4,000 feet just off the Karakoram Highway – a tourist destination and a military center that one would scarcely imagine to be the hideaway of “the world’s most wanted man.”
Untold millions of people are watching news reports right now of this event, much of it accompanied by penetrating analysis of its geopolitical implications, and I have little to add to the important things being said along those lines.
I offer a few observations about religious dimensions:
• When grave events occur in various parts of the world, the global nature of the Anglican Communion is such that most such events occur in some diocese or other that is Anglican or, as in much of south Asia, a diocese in which Anglicans joined with others to form a united ecumenical church. In this case, the killing of Osama bin Laden occurred in the Diocese of Peshawar of the united Church of Pakistan, in a city that has a vital congregation of Christian Pakistanis. As far back as our visit to Peshawar in 2004, it was commonly assumed by Christian leaders that bin Laden was living in the diocese, and I recall one in North Waziristan pointing to the mountains along the Afghan border as his probable location at that time. This is to say that the Diocese of Peshawar has been living with these realities a long time, as has the general population.
• In addition to the local expression of the Church of Pakistan, it was intriguing to meet other committed Christians in Abbottabad. They included, for instance, a north European who shares Christianity in many parts of Pakistan through what he calls friendship evangelism, and a British Anglican who pastors an ecumenical intentional community in the area. I note this by way of emphasizing, again, that while our tendency is to imagine the site of an event like bin Laden’s death on some outer edge of experience, such things usually occur amid living and complex communities where voices of the gospel of Jesus Christ are rarely absent.
• It sounds like a cliché in the west, but President Obama was quite right for the context of Pakistan to stress that the United States is not and has never been at war with Islam, and to note that Muslims as well as others were victims of bin Laden’s violence. The specter of irreconcilable conflict between the world of Islam and the Christian and/or secular west will continue to be raised by extremists on both sides. Our call is to move from the typology of a clash of civilizations to a typology for the dialogue and reconciliation of civilizations.
• So far there has not been public negative reaction in Peshawar about the raid in Abbottabad, though there is talk that some religious parties may stage processions and demonstrations on Tuesday. As should be well known by now, the majority of Pakistan’s Muslim people aspire to peace and, in fact, live in peace.
• Pakistan’s Christians feel vulnerable in the wake of these events. Please pray for them. And I am grateful for the many expressions of concern and prayer that I have received in the last days and today. They sustain Jane and me in a peace that passes all understanding.