Pakistan's Christian Community: Sons And Daughters Of The Soil

Christians are sons of the soil; not only have the Christian community's contributions to this nation's defense, education and healthcare sector been crucial, but they are among the original inhabitants of this land. Our state needs to do better by its minority ...

Jaranwala church burnt

I studied in a Christian missionary school in the early years of my student life — the St. Johns High School, Murree Road, Rawalpindi. The teachers were all Christians except for the Islamiat teacher, who was a Pashtun lady and the PT teacher, who was a retired Army JCO. The teachers were culturally very sophisticated. They taught us how to behave with elders and how to treat the younger ones. I remember our Principal used to say in the assembly address each morning, “Bay-adab Bay-naseeb Ba-adab Baa-naseeb” or “The person who is unrespectful is without luck, and the person with respect is lucky as well.”

Ma’am S.K. Dass was my class teacher as well as English teacher - an elegant and intelligent lady. I have been working in English language journalism for the last 33 years, and whenever I write in the English language, I keep in mind what Ma’am S.K. Dass taught me. She was my teacher 49 years ago, but I still recall the simple formula she taught us for writing in the simple present tense, “Whenever there is he, she, or any name add an ‘s’ or ‘es’ to the verb.” My vivid memory of her teaching is a testament to her impact on my personality and my writing ability. 

There was a time when Christians of Pakistan were very active in the education sector. Then the Pakistani rulers thought that they have to Islamize the education system and that Christian missionaries were a threat. I say my teachers at St. Johns High School were highly cultured and sophisticated people, primarily because they were trained in the liberal tradition. They were all devout Christians, and yet they showed exemplary respect for the religion of their students.

This was in the 1970s, and the era of fear from religious extremists had not gripped us yet. One example of this atmosphere free of fear and biases and prejudices was that I came from a religiously conservative family and yet my parents were not afraid to send me to a missionary school. Christians in our neighborhood were treated as “our own people,” primarily because they spoke the same language — Punjabi. There are now well documented histories of Christian communities in Pakistan which trace their origins as the original inhabitants of the land. These histories convincingly argue that Pakistani Christians are the original sons of the soil. Treating them as outsiders, or linking them as an outgrowth of European or American Christianity is an invention of a distorted fundamentalist mentality that has already caused a lot of destruction in society. However, in this time of deep anguish, one cannot expect Pakistani Christians to completely de-link their community from western Christianity - which, in these testing times, serves as their own source of solace.

The Pakistani state has failed our Christian community. But the irony is that even Pakistani society doesn’t have anything to offer to the Christians of Pakistan. It will take years, if not decades, to heal the wounds caused by the Jaranwala tragedy. The carnage that we witnessed is enough to completely alienate the Christians of Pakistan.

I think an urgent task for the Pakistani state and civil society is to initiate programs for the revival of the indigeneity of the Pakistani Christian community. Most of our intercommunal problems emanate from the political fact that we have turned the Pakistani state machinery into a patrimonial structure that can only accommodate the majority religion. The impartiality of the state machinery has been permanently lost. The state is partial and the state machinery is in a patrimonial relationship with those who claim to speak for the majority religion. This is no fault of any religion in itself.

Islamic history is full of examples of the state acting impartially in the medieval period, even as it governed societies composed of multiple religious identities, long before the Western secular political and legal tradition was invented. This is a fault of the current state machinery, which has a long-established tradition of becoming a party to political, social and religious conflicts. The state might play a role in resolving intercommunal conflicts, but protecting every religious community from physical harm is the prime responsibility of the state, before it can qualify as an actor that can resolve conflicts. By reviving the concept of Christians as sons of the soil, civil society and the state can rejuvenate the idea of Christianity as a community which has a share in the patrimony of the state, and the social and political resources that flow from it. This idea could be extended to every religious minority in Pakistan. Even Hindus, Sikhs and Ahmadis are sons of the soil.

This idea can help us eradicate the sense of alienation that has taken roots in these minority communities because of the oppression they have faced at the hands of fundamentalist groups.

Of all the religious minorities, Christians have particularly proven that they are the sons of the soil. They have contributed greatly in the education and health sector. They have been very effective as military men in our armed forces. The name of Cecil Chaudhry, an Air Force pilot who is considered a war hero comes to mind almost instantly. But unfortunately, according to reports, our Maverick didn’t die a satisfied man, especially when it comes to the condition of his co-religionists in Pakistan.

In the wake of the Jaranwala tragedy, a Christian friend posted an appeal on Facebook asking everybody to pray for the Christians of Pakistan. “May God Protect every Christian in Pakistan,” was my response. I am personally indebted to the Christian community of Pakistan because of the role my Christian teachers played in making me the person that I am today. But alas, I could not do much. I believe there should have been powerful voices from within our society to appeal for the protection of Christian holy places. Those who were instrumental in this vandalism should be made to realize that they have done great harm to Pakistan and its social fabric.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.