TEXAS: Pakistani bishops seek partnerships for ministry in hostile land

March 1, 2011

On a recent visit to the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, retired Pakistani Bishop Mano Rumalshah of Peshawar described his diocese as "not a church for the poor, because there are too many. We are a church of the poor."

Rumalshah and the new bishop of Peshawar, the Rt. Rev. Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters, visited Houston in February to share the story of their ministry with Episcopal churches.

Straddling the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Diocese of Peshawar exists in one of the most hostile settings on earth. Taliban forces take refuge in this area, as part of the diocese encompasses a buffer zone or "lawless" area between the two countries where global powers engage in the war against terrorism. According to Rumalshah, no real border exists because one tribe of people represents the majority population of both Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan (or NWFP) within the diocese.

Yet, in this dangerous area, the Diocese of Peshawar serves the poor with medical and pastoral care as well as educational training. In the NWFP there are an estimated 100,000 Christians out of a total population of 17 million. But the services of the Diocese of Peshawar are open to people of all faiths, including terrorist sympathizers.

"Anyone who walks through that door is a child of God," Rumalshah said. "It's a costly love, a sacrificial love. It is a precious love."

Every day, the Church of Pakistan -- one of the three united, ecumenical provinces of the Anglican Communion -- faces danger as a result of the "blasphemy law," which prohibits speaking against Islam. Although it is legal for churches to operate, Christian leaders must be cautious not to violate the law.

"Many Christians have been put to death, houses and villages put on fire because of the misuse of this law," said Peters. "We have to be cautious but we are constantly requesting the government and everyone to stop the misuse of this law."

In addition to the violence, the Diocese of Peshawar also has been hit by two natural disasters over the past six years. In 2005, Pakistan suffered an earthquake that killed approximately 75,000 people. And in 2010, floods ravaged Pakistan putting one-fifth the total land area underwater. Twenty million people were displaced from the floods that left 2,000 dead. Much of the country's crops were destroyed as water swept across the country.

"I can only describe it as one word -- cataclysmic," Rumalshah said.

In the midst of such turmoil, the Rev. Robin Reeves, a fellow of St. Luke's chaplaincy services, founded Bridges to Pakistan, a charity dedicated to building relationships with the Diocese of Peshawar. After meeting Rumalshah in 2003, Reeves traveled to Pakistan in 2005 to see the work of the Diocese of Peshawar.

"In an atmosphere of fear and hate, they are a voice of love for the people that Americans say it is OK to hate," Reeves said. "They are either a little bit crazy, or they know something about love that I want to know about."

According to Rumalshah, his province in Pakistan has always been a sort-of frontier, not unlike the western frontier of early America. But after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the region grew increasingly unstable.

"9/11 turned the whole thing upside down," Rumalshah said. "Now we have the special qualification that we are terrorists, and that is the worst part. No one has constructively tried to give these people resources. At the moment, they are trying to kill them instead of build their community.

"You can't kill them," he added. "They are used to being killed. They survived the Soviets for 20 years."

Rumalshah sees the mission of the Diocese of Peshawar as a resource of love to people of all faiths, and he urges Christians in America to do the same. As someone who has experienced intense religious persecution, Rumalshah abhors the concept in any society. "You must go out of your way in America to share the same radical love to your Muslim neighbors," Rumalshah said.

"We want to be an instrument of reconciliation for people of different religions," Peters said. "Church is hope … not hope just for Christians. It is hope for the entire world. Where is that hope if we don't [show] it?"

In order to build a stronger community, the Diocese of Peshawar wants to foster new partnerships with people around the world. Though resources are slim, and violence is always a concern, the Pakistani bishops don't want Americans to feel sorry for their church.

"We are proud to be here," Rumalshah said. "We don't want pity. Our presence is alive, and we are not underground. We want living relationships with people."

The Church of Pakistan includes Anglicans, Methodists, Scottish Presbyterians, and Pakistani Lutherans.