U-C: What I See

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

On Presbyterian-Muslim relationships in Sangla Hill, Pakistan

I had never heard of Sangla Hill until I arrived in Pakistan. As is true in the rest of the country, Muslims make up the vast majority of the population in the town of Sangla Hill, but there are also strong Presbyterian and Catholic Churches there, and on the outskirts of town the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan (PCP) has a large girl’s school founded many years ago by missionaries.

Two months ago an altercation broke out between a couple of teenaged boys. There are different stories of exactly what took place, but the bottom line is that one of the boys was Muslim and the other was Christian. Most versions of the story agree that the argument eventually led to the partial burning of a Koran, and the incident escalated into a mob action by a group of Muslims. By the end of the afternoon, the Presbyterian Church and the pastor’s home had been completely destroyed by deliberate acts of arson, and much of the Catholic property in Sangla Hill was damaged as well. Through an act of God’s grace that no one can fully explain, the Presbyterian school where over one hundred girls were staying escaped all damage, though some of the angry demonstrators actually made it onto the property. All of that is important backdrop, but it isn’t the point of the story.

I visited Sangla Hill on Friday the 20th of January. The context for my visit was complicated by the U.S. attack in the Darjour Agency on the border with Afghanistan, in which eighteen people were killed, most of them women and children who appear to have no connection whatsoever to the person who was the stated object of the U.S. attack. For the Christians who are a tiny minority in this country, attacks like this one can make life very difficult, since many Pakistani’s associate the U.S. government with the Christian faith proclaimed by our President and the overwhelming majority of Americans who profess the Christian faith as well.

As a result of the Darjour missile attack, the Government of Pakistan (which the U.S. considers an ally in the war on terror) was reluctant to allow me, as the Moderator of the PC(USA), to visit Darfour. The last thing they wanted was the possibility of another blow-up at such a sensitive time. However, about mid-morning on Friday we were given permission to make the visit. The conditions for that permission became obvious to me as we stopped on the outskirts of town and received a police escort that accompanied us throughout our time in Sangla Hill.

After visiting the school, which is well run and would make the missionaries who founded it quite proud, we drove back into town. The crowd of Christians in the streets to greet us was huge, so we had to get out of the van we were traveling in and walk the last block to the church. People threw rose petals at our feet as we walked (except for the kids, who had huge grins on their faces as they pelted us with them instead), and there was a huge sign on the front of the church that welcomed us to the community. As we walked through the street, I neither saw nor perceived any animosity from the Muslims who lined the streets just beyond the crowd that was welcoming us. There were smiles on people’s faces, and many waved as we walked by.

The church is a large, adobe brick structure, perhaps thirty feet across and more than sixty feet long. Though the walls are still standing and the metal roof is intact, all of the windows and their frames were entirely burned, and all of the contents of the church were lost. The walls were black with soot, and I’m told that the building will have to be razed due to the serious structural damage it sustained.

As we were led into what remains of the Sanctuary, we paused to remove our shoes outside church, as is the custom in many of the churches in India and Pakistan. Inside, old carpets covered the floor and there was a makeshift, carpet-covered stage at the front of the room. It was difficult to get there though, because the room was jam-packed with people sitting on the floor. Men, women, and dozens of children; I bet there were at least five hundred people crammed into that little building. As I stepped up onto the stage, I pulled my Bible out of my backpack, along with a small, wooden, hand-painted cross from Central America that I have carried in my bag for at least ten years.

The service was what I had come to expect. There was the singing of the Psalms, accompanied by a choir with an old fashioned, accordion-bellows, style piano and an instrument that looked like a musical recorder with a small keyboard. The pastor welcomed our delegation from the United States as well as the church officials who were accompanying us from the PCP. Of course, we all had to be garlanded, and then Edwin, Raafat and I were each given the gift of a beautiful, handmade, Pakistani rug. As the speeches were translated, I learned that Christian and Muslim leaders in the community had moved quickly to enter into a formal reconciliation and to restore a sense of peace in the community. The government has agreed to pay the expenses to rebuild the church and the parsonage, though replacing the contents of the buildings will be the responsibility of the church. The small podium we used as a pulpit was a gift from the Catholic church.

When it was my turn to speak, I unrolled my carpet on the stage and stepped onto it in my stocking feet. I reflected that even if the church had burned entirely, we would still be worshiping on Holy Ground. I promised that I would share their story in the United States, as a witness both to the resilience of the members of that church and as a testimony to the power of love and care for one another among the great majority of Sangla Hill as they rebuild and repair their relationships in the wake of the violence and destruction of a relatively small handful of individuals.

I also asked the Pastor, a tall, thin man wearing a somewhat threadbare, pinstripe suit, to step forward. I showed my Central American cross to the congregation and explained that those Salvadoran crosses - with their simple, hand-painted scenes of hope painted on them - have come to represent the power of God to overcome even the hatred and violence that killed hundreds of thousands of people in their countries in the 1980’s. I applauded the efforts of that church to do the same, and then placed the cross, with its worn silk cord, around the Pastor’s neck. There was great applause as the pastor and I embraced.

After the service, we were hosted for a meal in the home of a Muslim who is a great friend of one of the elders in the church. We were also were joined by a Muslim representative to the regional government. Every conversation we had was an expression of solidarity and commitment to one another, and for me it was a great sign of the fundamental goodness that exists in the vast majority of the people everywhere I’ve been. Events of violence, like the one that took place at Sanla Hill, offer an opportunity to live Jesus’ absurd conviction that we should love even our enemies. Perhaps his wisdom was that in doing so we rediscover that we weren’t enemies in the first place.

Please pray with me for the Christians and Muslims of Sangla Hill.