[Episcopal News Service] The Easter Day suicide bombing at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore, Pakistan, that killed at least 72 Christians and Muslims and injured more than 300, sent shockwaves throughout the region.
But the March 27 attack did not deter Episcopalian Caroline Carson from leaving the Diocese of Louisiana for Pakistan the following day on an already-scheduled trip at the invitation of Bishop Samuel Azariah, Church of Pakistan moderator.
“I briefly considered not going, but … I felt that having this chance to make a good connection was a priceless opportunity … to stand up to society’s fears, bust through stereotypes, create goodwill, and see beyond the cover of the book,” said Carson, a lay deputy to General Convention and director of choral activities at the University of New Orleans. “I also felt very called to be there, even more so after the bombing. Pakistani Christians have been through so many bombings. I wanted personally to deliver the message that we also desire their peace and safety. I wanted to reach out and deliver messages of friendship.”
During the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in June 2015, Azariah had asked Carson to visit his Lahore-based Diocese of Raiwind to teach music, offer some of her NASA Solar System Ambassador presentations in the schools, and to learn about the Church of Pakistan. “While I did do all of these things, my visit gained an additional new focus in the light of the recent bombing and the fact that I was an American, coming to Pakistan against all U.S. Department of State travel warnings at a time of heightened concerns,” she said.
When Carson arrived in Lahore, Azariah had already held one meeting of local Christian leaders and called a meeting of interfaith religious leaders “to discuss how to cope with recent terror events, how to move forward, and how to make an active difference that would reach beyond words.
“The Church of Pakistan had stepped immediately into action,” she said. “They would rather put themselves in danger and put their lives at risk for something good that to sit by idly in a corner, struck down by fear.”
In that spirit, local religious leaders decided that an interfaith prayer vigil at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park would take place on Sunday, April 3, at the same time as the Easter Day bombing one week earlier. It was an act that they defined as “defiantly holy.”
Despite security concerns, Carson joined about 200 local Muslim and Christian leaders, international guests, and some families of the victims at the vigil.
“I went. I prayed. I cried. I gave our condolences from the Diocese of Louisiana and from the Episcopal Church,” said Carson. “Children are children and the horror of losing them in such senseless violence reaches a depth where no words remain.
“More tears came when I saw a little brother of one of the victims. He was too young to understand it all, but he was profoundly sad. I held a candle and the hands of my fellow humans – Muslim, Christian, Hindu – and I felt what it is to be in communion with each other. This is so important. God is so much bigger than all of our separateness. We are a human family.”
Ahead of her trip, Carson had asked the schoolchildren at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans, where she is director of music, to make messages and cards that she could take with her to Pakistan. “I felt that some of the families affected would appreciate these cards, but even more so after the Easter Day bombing,” she said. “My new Pakistani friends in the junior church in the Diocese of Raiwind made some cards in reciprocation,” and Carson delivered them to St. Paul’s when she returned.
That need for connectedness was why the Very Rev. Patrick Augustine, the Pakistan-born rector of Christ Episcopal Church in La Crosse, Wisconsin, was even more determined to proceed with his April visit in solidarity with the Christian community there.
Augustine was guest preacher on April 24 at All Saints Anglican Church in Peshawar, which was targeted in September 2013 by two suicide bombers at the end of a Sunday worship service, killing 127 people and injuring 170. Many of the victims were women and children.
“Although they lost a large number of their members in this bomb attack, on Sunday morning All Saints Church was packed and there was hardly any space left empty,” said Augustine.
During the attack, 12 of the 15 choir members were killed. “Their choir members were now more than 20 with renewed faith to lead and praise God,” he said. “The man who plays tabla (drums) has been member of the choir for the last 33 years. He was severely injured. After two years of treatments he is back in the choir playing drums again. I had an opportunity to pray for him asking God to continue his healing.”
After the Sunday service, many people asked Augustine to lay hands on them and pray for their healing. “Many suffer severe pain as pieces of ball bearings, blades and poisonous material still is in their bodies,” he said. “I observed there were several members of this congregation who could not kneel because of pain. I was amazed and blessed to experience their living and vibrant faith.”
Evidence that Christianity in Pakistan is growing despite the persecution was seen one week later when Augustine dedicated a new church building in Gulpur, Azad Kashmir. “It was a great day of rejoicing and celebration,” he said. “We pray many more blessings will be poured upon this land. It was a great privilege for me to be part of this historic day.”
Another aspect of the persecution faced by religious minorities is the draconian Pakistani blasphemy law, which identifies it as a crime to defile the Quran, with a possible sentence of life imprisonment. Offenses against the Prophet Muhammad may be punishable by death.
There is the prominent case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman and mother of five who was arrested in June 2009 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad – which she denies – and sentenced to death by hanging. She is still in a Pakistan jail despite massive rallying worldwide appealing for her release.
Some blasphemy charge cases receive coverage in the media, but thousands more go unreported.
The Anglican Consultative Council, the Anglican Communion’s main policy-making body, passed a resolution during its April meeting in Zambia standing in solidarity and prayer with Asia Bibi and urging “her case to be re-investigated and that she be honorably acquitted.”
Although the Christian minorities – 1.5 percent of 180 million people – face daily persecution in Pakistan, “a lot of good things are happening there. There is great faith and hope” and it is very important to think about, pray for, visit them and bear witness to their lives, according to the Rev. Khushnud Azariah, vicar of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Riverside, California, and the first female Pakistani to be ordained a priest.
Azariah hopes that collaborative partnerships and exchanges may emerge from a March trip she and other members of the Diocese of Los Angeles Program Group on Global Partnership took to her birthplace, Lahore.
The group said they visited Pakistan in response to the church’s call to attempt partnerships and peace building in areas where Christians are minorities.
That call came last year, in the form of General Convention Resolution D035, which originated in the Diocese of Los Angeles. It charged the Episcopal Church to support and “to learn about the realities of the Church in Pakistan and the oppression of religious minorities in that country.”
Their trip coincided with a conference that brought together representatives from the eight dioceses in Pakistan, and two minority populations: Muslims from Norway, and Christians from Pakistan, for peace building, reconciliation and experience sharing. It evoked the question of responsibility toward the Christians’ neighbors, Azariah said. And while dealing with a Muslim majority may be tricky and even difficult at times, she said, “the church is called to love your neighbor. And who my neighbor is, in the context of Pakistan, is Muslims.
“The church is now trying to find ways to reach out to Muslims who are moderate and who also want to speak up for the rights of everyone,” she added.
The Rev. Canon Titus Presler, an Episcopal priest who served as principal of the Edwardes College in Peshawar, was all set to attend and speak at that conference until visa complications forced him to remain in the United States.
In February 2014, Presler experienced first-hand some the persecution faced by local Christians when he was beaten and threatened with death by Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agents on the outskirts of Peshawar as part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s drive to assert its control over Edwardes College, a liberal arts undergraduate and graduate church institution of 2,800 students, where 90 percent of faculty and students are Muslim.
“One immediate response I had was to realize anew that Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan have been experiencing much greater abuse for decades, and so my first prayer was one of solidarity as we drove on to Islamabad,” he said.
“Another initial response, however, was silence,” he added. “I found it difficult to discuss the incident. In beating me, accusing me, tearing up my visa, threatening me with death, and so on, the ISI agents had treated me as rubbish. They heaped blame and shame on me. Cognitively I knew it all to be false. Emotionally, though, some part of me was asking: Does this happening to me mean that they’re right? I must have done something wrong to deserve this. I must be to blame. Maybe I am rubbish. I feel deeply shamed.”
That experience has taught him the importance of “praying with our enemies on their knees,” said Presler, who has served as academic dean at General Theological Seminary in New York, and president of the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas.
“Praying for the enemy is generous, but in doing so we can retain our distance, even our sense of superiority,” he said. “Praying with the enemy is humbling, for it puts us alongside the enemy in a relationship of equality before God. It may mean joining an enemy who is already at prayer, and we must recognize that we have enemies who pray. It may mean inviting an enemy into prayer. In the natural course of things, none of that may be possible, as it has not been possible for me in Peshawar. But I have found that praying as though my enemy were kneeling and praying beside me has been profoundly edifying. Praying with the enemy forces me to open up to the other’s full humanity.”
From his experience, Presler said, Christians in Pakistan are willing to pray alongside their enemies. “In that willingness they are taking the first step in being open to the call to be reconciled,” he said. “In that spirit they may be able actually to draw militants toward reconciliation when they take advantage of their ministries in education and healthcare.”
In Pakistan, virtually all the outreach work of Christian churches can be seen as reconciliation work, he said. “They are an oppressed and persecuted minority community. Yet they do not withdraw into their shell to nurse their wounds and grudges. Instead they continue to support and build up their network of educational and healthcare ministries that serve primarily the majority community. Thereby they are every day extending the olive branch of service and peace to the Muslim majority, saying, in effect: ‘You have hurt us, you are hurting us now, and we know many of you will continue to hurt us in the future. Nevertheless we continue to be open to you, we continue to serve you in the name of Christ. And we pray and hope that together we can be reconciled.’ … God’s mission is to reach across those differences to discover one another, care and form relationships, liberate and work for justice, and finally to reconcile. God invites us to join in that mission.”
– Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter of the Episcopal News Service. The Rev. Pat McCaughan contributed to this article.