Celebrating Christmas with Christians in Islamabad
By Akbar Ahmed & Amineh Hoti
On the 25th of December a few days ago we, the co-authors, celebrated Christmas with the Christian community in Islamabad. Here we were reminded of the powerful message of peace and love.
Our presence as Muslims was not that unusual though it was a bold step in today’s Pakistan. After all M.A. Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam (the founding father) and first leader of Pakistan, had spent Christmas day with the Christian Community in Karachi in 1947. This year, Nawaz Sharif the Prime Minister of Pakistan and Bilawal Bhutto head of the main opposition party the PPP also celebrated Christmas with Christians.
But this was not New York, London or Rome where the shops and window displays are bursting with spectacular Christmas creations and a spirit of festivity permeates society. This was Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, and we were in the poorest section of the slums of Islamabad among one of the most impoverished Christian communities in South Asia. This was “Kachi Abadi F-6/2”. In fact, the area was not even graced with its own name: “Kachi Abadi” simply means “non-permanent or make-shift settlement”. Gas, electricity and water are are not supplied by the state but organized by charitable donations.
Ironically, the sector of F-6/2 is located in a posh area of this rather posh city of Pakistan. Here live the Ambassadors and heads of international organizations,the Pakistani ministers and millionaires. A stone’s throw from here are the Super Market and the Kohsar Market where the rich and powerful do their shopping. A cup of coffee in the Kohsar Market costs 400 rupees and an éclair at Beardpapa’s costs 230 repees. This is a great deal of money to the vast majority of Pakistanis.
Such a blatant juxtaposition of extreme poverty and affluence is dangerous in any society. Here in Pakistan with the Christian community so close at hand it is literally explosive. Salman Tasir , the governor of the Punjab, was shot point blank in Kohsar Market by his own official bodyguard. As if the shooting was not shocking enough what happened next was even more scandalous. Not only was the assassin garlanded and hailed as a hero by members of the public, including the lawyers, but the dead governor’s son was kidnapped as a continuing punishment. His whereabouts are still unknown. The crime of the governor in the eyes of the gunman and his supporters was the sympathy he had shown to a young Christian girl accused of blasphemy which under the Blasphemy Laws is punishable by death.
Against this background, we, in the spirit of Jinnah’s interfaith dialogue and action, arrived at the Kachi Abadi on Christmas day and saw tense looking policemen with guns and walkie talkies. They told us that they were specifically on duty on this day to prevent any kind of negative incident.
Accompanied by our families, we walked through the tight lanes, attempting to avoid the open sewers and piles of rubbish thrown in the stream that ran along the Abadi. We arrived in one of the five churches of this community. The church was located on the second floor with very steep stairs leading sharply into the red-carpeted church hall.
Here Pastor Babar Waris and his wife welcomed us. They gave us chairs to sit at the back of the church and as the gathering swelled they asked us on to the stage and garlanded each and every member of our group. Dr. Amineh Hoti was requested to speak from the pulpit. Her message reflected the hope and goodwill of Christmas itself. She linked the message with the larger message of Mr. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, the Quaid-i-Azam , who emphasized a special place minorities had in Pakistan. She pointed to the important understanding of interfaith dialogue in our troubled world.
The congregation was deeply moved by her message of hope. There was an evident appreciation in the smiles and body language of the congregants as they heard these words of hope and love.
This was a Protestant church, and therefore, simple in terms of its architecture and decoration. There was a plain cross on the pulpit and one behind Pastor Waris. Unike most Pakistani institutions there was no picture or reference to Mr Jinnah, the founding father.
The name of the Pastor gave us the first clue about the cultural influences of Islam on the community. His first name was taken from the founder of the great Mughal dynasty and his surname was that of a renowned Muslim mystic poet of the Punjab. Indeed he and his wife in dress and appearance could have been any middle-class Pakistani Muslim couple from Lahore or Islamabad.
By now there were about 25 men and 25 women in the church. Showing the cultural influences of Islam the men sat on one side and the women, their heads covered with light veils like Muslim Pakistanis, on the other. All sat on the floor. What was even more remarkable in terms of cultural influence was the constant reference to “Khudawand Ta’ala” and “Khuda ka Kalaam” from the pulpit – the Muslim name for God and reference to the Bible in the same language used by Muslims for the Quran. We were shown the Bible which was in Urdu.
What was perhaps most remarkable was the Qawwali-like “geeth” which was sung by both men and women. As they clapped their hands and sang their hymns in Urdu and Punjabi in praise of Isa – the Muslim name for Jesus – we pondered on the Qawwali itself which is classic Sufi devotional folk music.
Here was the famous South Asian cultural synthesis—layers of civilization lying one upon the other. The Qawwali is basically Hindu devotional singing which came to Islam a thousand years ago through the Sufis. And before our very eyes we were witnessing Christians adapting to folk music from Islam and before that Hinduism.
All around us was evidence of a small, somewhat impoverished but plucky community. Their rooms may have been kacha but they were neat. The houses may have been impoverished but there was a certain pride in the way they displayed pictures of members of the family. The two-roomed houses were located in the city’s slums but they had visible order. The government did not allocate the basic amenities but the residents had collected and pooled their own money from employment to install their own electricity, supplies, gas and water.
The inspiring words of compassion and love could not entirely conceal the tensions in and around the community and its sense of being under siege. The recent attack on a church in Peshawar has left the community feeling uncertain and fearful. Pakistanis have to do more to set their Christian brothers and sisters at ease. After all, the white in the Pakistani flag stands for the rightful space of the country’s minorities. Christians say Allah “aik hain”, “hum sub ous ko mantay hai aur hum sub Muslim aur Christian behen bhai hai” that is, “Muslims and Christians both believe in one God and we Muslims and Christians are brothers and sisters”. The Muslim community too needs to reach out and show compassion as the holy Prophet of Islam did to the Christians in his time. Pakistanis need to remind themselves of the example of their great leader the Quaid-i-Azam who celebrated diversity and interfaith harmony at Christmas.
Professor Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khadlun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, Washington DC, and author of The Thistle and the Drone, Brookings 2013. Dr Amineh Hoti is the Executive Director of the Centre for Dialogue and Action, Forman Christian College, Lahore, and also a Fellow-Commoner at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. She is the author of Sorrow and Joy among Muslim Women, Cambridge University Press 2006.