Christmas in Peshawar

Muslims are not the only inhabitants of Pakistan; many Christians, Hindus and Sikhs also live in this country of 170 million people.

By Abdullah Jan

2009-12-24

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Christians will ring in Christmas a little more quietly this year.

Pakistan today is known for the most dreaded terrorist networks and for being a land of intolerance. Few in the outside world may know that more than 3 million Christians and other religious minorities live serenely in this majority Muslim country.

Christians are the biggest religious minority in Pakistan, comprising about 2 percent of the population.

Religious minorities live in almost every corner of Pakistan, even the volatile northwestern parts and tribal regions.

Besides Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and other religious minorities live with Islamic Pakistanis, forming an excellent example of co-existence among the followers of different faiths.

“I was born a Pakistani and am proud to be so”, said Waseem Bhatti, 37, a Pentecostal Christian pastor from the northwestern city of Peshawar. “As a Christian, I enjoy all the freedoms for religious minorities available under the Pakistani laws”.

Otherwise considered a conservative town, Peshawar represents religious tolerance. A Catholic church, Saint Michael’s, and a Faisal Mosque have been located next to each other on its Mall Road for decades.

There are more than a dozen churches in Peshawar. Hindus and Sikhs also have places of worship in the city and elsewhere in Pakistan.

Even in the semi-autonomous tribal areas, religious minorities have their places of worship.

“My Muslim friends and neighbours bring us cakes and sweets on Christmas”, said Ejaz Yaqub, 40, a Christian who grew up in the shadow of the Mall Road Catholic church.

“They visit us on Christmas, good Fridays and Easters”, he said. Ejaz also visits Muslim friends on their religious festivals to share greetings.

Ejaz told Central Asia Online he has never had a problem with his Muslim colleagues. “Instead I found them very helpful and supportive”, said Ejaz, who works for an international aid agency.

“I have always received respect from Muslims and am proud of this,” said Samina Gulshan, whose husband is on Peshawar’s district council.

Samina, a mother of three, said her children mingle with Muslim families on Christmas and Eid, an annual religious festival for Muslims.

“But this time it’s an altogether different story,” said Peshawar housewife Zanobia Robinson, referring to the wave of terrorist attacks across Pakistan.

She is planning to celebrate this Christmas with less fervour due to threats of attacks on places of worship.

The Pakistani army has launched a massive offensive against the militant outfits in tribal regions since May of this year. The operation against the Taliban came after a wave of terrorist attacks across Pakistan. Peshawar was the worst-hit town, where two dozen bomb blasts have killed more than 300 people.

“The entire Pakistani nation is confronted with terrorism and so are the Christians”, Robinson told Central Asia Online.

The Christian community has decided to celebrate Christmas as “Silent Christmas,” with no outdoor activities and smaller gatherings.

“Instead of going for more fervour, we should sympathize with those who lost their loved ones in terrorist attacks,” said Waseem, who plans to spend Christmas visiting families who have lost loved ones to terrorism.

Police records confirm the deaths of at least two Christians in bomb blasts in Peshawar since October. Many non-Muslims have also been maimed in such attacks.

Rafail Bhatti, 35, a receptionist at the Church of Pakistan offices in Peshawar said, “With only two days left I have yet to buy Christmas stuff for my kids”.

The father of two said, “This will be the first time that I won’t take my kids outside on Christmas Day”.

“These bomb blasts have scared us,” said Samina, whose husband normally hosts a big party at their place on Christmas Eve. ‘This time we are inviting just a few friends and relatives”.

Bishop Earnest Jacob of Orthodox of Pakistan seemed more worried about the Christians living in tribal regions.

“I think most of them would come down to Peshawar and other bigger towns on Christmas Day.” Jacob said.

Hindus celebrated Holi [festival of colours] less zealously this year for security reasons.

Other religious minorities are facing similar problems as they observe religious festivals.

Even the majority population of Pakistan – Muslims -- had no option but to keep a low profile on the second-biggest religious festival of the lunar year, Eid-ul-Azha, in November.

“But despite all this Pakistan is my country and I love it,” said. Zanobia. She is hopeful about improvement in the situation in Peshawar and Pakistan. “Time will change and better days will be back soon.” she said.

“The entire country is suffering and so are we Christians,” said Joseph Saleem, 39, of Peshawar. He said he thinks the bad situation will bring the people of Pakistan closer together.

Saleem said Christians do face problems in a Muslim majority society. “But Pakistan is our motherland and all Pakistanis are brothers and sisters” he said.

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