PAKISTAN: Privilege to be present in 'hostile' area, says Peshawar bishop

December 10, 2008

As a tiny minority in sometimes harsh circumstances, Christians in Pakistan's North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan find themselves in the midst of a complex conflict involving regional and global powers.

Pakistani government security forces are fighting Taliban and Al-Qaida militants, and the border to Afghanistan is not much more than a demarcation line on the map. Extremists can roam freely in the mountainous landscape, while cross border strikes into Pakistan from United States military based in Afghanistan add to the tension.

"We deem it a privilege that we as a church are present in perhaps the world's most hostile and vulnerable areas at the moment," said Bishop Munawar K. Rumalshah of the Church of Pakistan, who heads the Diocese of Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province.

"God has allowed us to be there, in his name. To serve humanity, especially people who despise and hate us by cleaning their wounds and nurturing the children," Rumalshah told a team from the Geneva-based World Council of Churches visiting Pakistan from November 24 to December 1.

Rumalshah believes that is why the social service centers run by the diocese have not been attacked. These centers, said Rumalshah, are not exclusively for Christians. "In fact, 95 percent of those benefiting from our education, development work and health care are Muslims," he noted.

The Church of Pakistan is the result of the union of four denominations: Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian (Church of Scotland), which took place in 1970. Of the 173 million population in Pakistan, 95 percent are Muslims, while Christians and Hindus make up less than 5 percent.

For Rumalshah and his community, trying to live by the Christian Gospel is about being accepted as a minority. Christians in other countries, however, do not always help in the communities' struggle for existence, he says.

When in 2005, cartoons caricaturing the prophet Muhammad were published in Denmark, Christians in Pakistan faced violence and harassment. When the drawings were published again, Christians themselves demonstrated against them.

"When the Western world does something against Islam," said the Rev. Insar Gohar, a church youth coordinator in Peshawar, "then we suffer a lot and sometimes extremist Muslims attack our institutions and churches."

Bishop Rumalshah said, "You people sneeze in the West and we get a cold."

An audio file of Rumalshah speaking on the role of the church amidst conflict is available here.

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