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In Pakistan the backs of houses are usually where laundry is done.  Guests would be invited into the front rooms, which are decorated and furnished to honour those visiting the family, while menial tasks such as cooking and washing are done at the back.  The rear of our house backs onto the rear of the houses on the street above ours, and so it is that when I go out to put in laundry or check to see if the hot-water boiler is still functioning I inevitably encounter our neighbours.  Their balcony is where they, too, do their laundry, hang their clothes, or come out to lie on a charpai (traditional bed) to warm themselves in the sun.  I try not to linger; the rear of the house is normally the place where women come to relax, and I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable by intruding on their private space.

Our bedroom is also at the back of our house, meaning that our bedroom windows looks out over their balcony as well.  Every morning and evening while tackling the stream of emails that ping into my inbox I look out to the our neighbours come out to pray.  They take down their prayer mat, orient it towards Mecca, and kneel down to go about their prayers.  They close their eyes, their lips moving in silent piety, they bow down, they look left and right, and they go through the simple routine just as millions of Muslims do several times a day, in Pakistan and around the Muslim world.  Their prayer routine is simple, undemonstrative, calm, elegant, and peaceful.

Islam has come under intense scrutiny in recent years.  The actions carried out by a tiny minority of Muslims have resulted in every single Muslim in the world being viewed with suspicion, as if 1.2 billion Muslims are somehow responsible for the violent fanaticism of a few thousand.  No matter that this is blatantly illogical and deeply unfair; no matter that this is akin to considering all Indians culpable for the actions of a handful of rapists or blaming every single Chinese person for the corruption of a few Party officials – this is how the world seems when you absorb the crass and foolish generalisations of the media.  Islam, it seems, stands accused of having a problem.

Except for the overwhelming majority of Muslim people, that is.  After living in Pakistan for four years normal Islam seems, to me, pretty normal.  Quiet, pious, polite, undemonstrative, peaceful.  Confident, yet humble.  These are the characteristics of Muslim people as I have come to know them after living amongst them for four years.  It is a long, long way from the violence and intolerance flaunted around the tabloids of the Western world.

I go out to get the laundry out of the washing machine and my neighbour looks up from his chair where he is sitting to read the newspaper.

“Salaam aleikum!” he calls cheerfully.  “Peace be upon you!”.

And upon you too, friend.

Yesterday one hundred and thirty-two schoolchildren were murdered by terrorists at their school in Peshawar.  The funerals are already taking place, as is normal in Islamic countries.  One hundred and thirty-two coffins, heartbreakingly small; one hundred and thirty-two sets of grieving parents; one hundred and thirty-two families whose future has been snatched away in a heartbeat.  It is too much to bear.

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Jesus, whom Christians like me believe to be the son of God, had much to say about suffering.  On numerous occasions he predicted that suffering would come, that his followers would be handed over to the authorities, that they would be killed.  In the Gospel of Matthew he stated that he was sending his followers out “like sheep among wolves”.  Yet he also instructed us how to respond to suffering.  We should not retaliate, but instead should “turn the other cheek”, we should “bless those who persecute us”.  Paul, a leader of the early church, agreed: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”.

I cannot do it.  When I see the pain carved into the faces of the people crowding around Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, the inchoate grief of those uttering funeral prayers over coffins that are far too small, forgiveness is far from my mind.  The only thoughts in my mind are dark and murderous.  May the perpetrators of this deed know nothing but pain and anguish.  May their houses be destroyed, may their crops be ruined, may they weep and grieve and die far from their loved ones.  I want to offer them not forgiveness, but bombs, and bullets, and violence.  I – even I, a committed pacifist! – want them to look into the eyes of the weeping mothers, the anguished fathers, and know just a fraction of the unspeakable pain that is tearing their souls into pieces.  The impossibility of forgiving the kind of people who would shoot schoolchildren cowering under their desks – this impossibility stares me in the face and mocks my futile rage.  I am failing as a follower of Jesus

But this rage will not help.  Fighting violence with more violence will only beget yet further violence.  This attack was carried out in response to the army offensive against terrorists in Waziristan, an offensive that was launched in response to terrorist attacks in Pakistan, which were carried out in response to a previous offensive against terrorists in the Swat Valley….and so the cycle goes, an eye for an eye, a bomb for a bomb, a massacre in return for a massacre.  The same cycle spins in Israel and Palestine, and it spins in Syria and Iraq, and it spins wearily on its bloodslicked axis wherever men with cruel faces lift rifles to their shoulders or pull pins from grenades.  Nothing will change, if we carry on like this.

This is why Jesus said what he did.  Because he knew that the only way out of this deepening torrent of murder and darkness was to choose a different course of action, a decision so illogical, so difficult, that it makes us want to laugh.  To forgive.  To refuse to bear a grudge.  To offer love in the place of anger.  This is why he chose to give his life in our place, uttering the words “Father, forgive them” even as men committed barbarities against him.  Because this offers us a way out.

I can’t do it.  But I know that I have to do it.  The words of forgiveness stick in my throat, as if even my larynx cannot bring itself to utter something so contrary to human nature.  It is a choice between darkness and light, and yet darkness is so much easier.

It is still too raw.

We had a Christmas carol party at our house the other day: thirty foreigners from six or seven different countries all gathered together to sing carols, eat cookies, and drink coffee.  Unsurprisingly, it was a lot of fun.  Perhaps surprisingly, it brought the meaning of Christmas home in a very stark way.

Christmas carols are usually associated with fun and jollity – the kind of thing Westerners listen to as they do their Christmas shopping.  Since Christmas, at least in the West, has become a hyper-commercialised orgy of consumption and unnecessary expenditure, stripped of its Christian origins, so Christmas carols have become part of the cultural backdrop of the West – and so “Away in a Manger” is mashed up with “Jingle Bells” and “Driving Home for Christmas” and Mariah Carey singing “All I Want for Christmas Is You”, and may God have mercy on us all for that particular crime against humanity.

Singing these carols in Pakistan, where Christmas passes largely unnoticed, stripped of all of its commercial baggage, brings the meaning of Christmas home to us in a very striking way.

Put simply: Christmas carols are dark.

Take this, from “We Three Kings”:

“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying / Sealed in a stone-cold tomb”.

Or this, from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:

“Oh come, thou Rod of Jesse, free / Thine own from Satan’s tyranny / From depths of hell thy people save/ And give them victory o’er the grave”.

Not exactly chirpy, is it?  Or this, from “Oh Holy Night”:

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining / Till he appeared and the Spirit felt its worth / A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices…”.

The point is this: in wrapping Christmas in a bundle of gaudy, tinselly baggage of consumption and self-interest we have missed its most important point: that the birth of Jesus was part of a rescue mission to save a dark and broken world from its own slow suicide.  It is a time of rejoicing, yes – but only in that we are celebrating the arrival of the Messiah who came to save us.

It is ironic that I spent most of my life in a “Christian” country and yet only really appreciated the true beauty and power of the Christmas story when living in a Muslim country.

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I have spent the last four years of my life living in a country that is 97% Muslim.  Before that, I frequently travelled to Muslim countries such as Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, and Zanzibar (a strongly Islamic island belonging to Tanzania).  I have studied the history of Islam extensively.  My landlord is a Muslim, most of my friends in Pakistan are Muslims, many of my friends back in the UK are Muslim, and in the UK I lived in a town which was 25% Muslim.

I am also a committed Christian.

Is there a contradiction here?  Not a bit of it.

We live in turbulent times marked by division and mistrust. People in Europe are increasingly wary of Muslim people – in recent elections nationalist parties made large gains in the UK, France, Netherlands, Greece and Austria.  Many people watch the news about Islamic State and terrorism around the world and link it to the Muslims they see in their neighbourhoods, even though only a minute fraction of Muslims worldwide are involved in terrorism.  I have heard several Christian preachers give talks on Islam which are brimming with suspicion and hostility.  So you might think that a committed Christian like myself would be similarly brimming with hostility towards the Muslim people among whom I live.

But I’m not.  Not at all. Not even close.

So why not?  Among the many reasons I could pick to answer this question would be the following:

1. Because Islam and Christianity are really quite similar.  Shocking, isn’t it?  Yet they are both monotheistic religions, share a number of fundamental beliefs, and recognise characters such as Abraham, Moses, Job, David, Solomon, Mary, and Jesus.  We have different opinions on the nature of Jesus, and that is important – but I have so much more in common with a Muslim than I would with an atheist.

2. Because Muslims are wonderful.  Anyone who is surprised by me saying that has probably never travelled to a Muslim country.  The hospitality, the kindness, the instinctive respect for Christianity (yes, I mean that!), the constant, unfailing kindness.

3. Most importantly, because Jesus commands his followers to treat others with love.  This is the Golden Rule, the chief summary of the teachings of Jesus, whom Christians recognise as the son of God. We are to love others and to live in peace with them.  Does that mean that we are to hide our own faith?  Not at all; we are called to be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have, and to do so with gentleness and respect.  Am I less of a Christian for loving Muslim people?  Well, was Jesus any less of a Christian for loving Samaritan people, the enemies of his day?

If we continue to love only our colleagues, our friends, our families, the people who share our nationality or skin colour or religion, the world will continue to be a divided and suspicious place.

If, on the other hand, we are able to overcome the fences that divide nationalities and religions, we might become agents of transformation, and the age-old mistrust between Islam and Christianity might finally be bridged.  Do I love Muslim people?  Yes, I do.  And so should you.  If Jesus had lived six hundred years later then he would have done so too.

Damascus: the Jupiter temple (III A.C.) in front of Omayyad mosque

Back in 2007 I went to Syria and Jordan on holiday.  I flew with a friend to Damascus, travelled to Hama and Homs, visited the astonishing Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, and wandered around the old city of Damascus with my jaw hanging down.  I had long been interested in Byzantine history and the history of the Middle East and the experience of seeing everything first hand was unforgettable.  We walked, took buses, ate in local restaurants, drank mint tea, and gaped at such a remarkable and historic country.

What struck me most was the hospitality with which we were greeted.  That trip probably marked the beginning of my love affair with the Islamic world.  Even in 2007 Syria was reckoned, at least in the West, to be a dangerous and hostile place – not quite noxious enough for Bush to include it in his notorious “Axis of Evil” speech but certainly worthy of an Honourable Mention.  The reality we encountered was entirely different.  On our first night we stayed at a Catholic guest-house run by nuns – and quite openly too, there being little to no hostility between Syrian Muslims and Christians.  Armenian and Orthodox churches were everywhere.  We walked down Straight Street in Damascus, site of St Paul’s historic meeting with Ananias, and were greeted warmly and with no fear whatsoever.  We visited Christian monasteries which didn’t even bother to post security guards at the gate.  Everyone we met was kind to us.

That was when I began to realise that we needed to start distinguishing between the politics of a country and the opinions of its citizens.  The Syrian government was a long way from a democratic haven but I realised how unjust it was to connect those policies with the Syrian people.  We Westerners affix labels to places like Iran, Syria and Pakistan and lazily assume that the labels are also transferable to the people of those countries – but this is not so.

And now I read the news and am heartbroken by what Syria has become.  Millions of refugees forced from their homes by the barbarity of Islamic State.  Thousands killed.  A civil war that shows no signs of ending.  Fundamentalists from around the world seemingly in competition with each other to reach new heights of murderous savagery.  Who would have thought, in the aftermath of 9/11, that new evils would arise to make even that mass slaughter seem civilised by comparison?

I want to remember the Syria I encountered in 2007, a place of remarkable harmony and welcome, not the Syria that we see now.  I also want to remember the words of Habbakuk, a prophet in the Bible, who looked at similar cruelty and barbarity and received consolation from God:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.

The Lord’s Answer

“Look at the nations and watch—
    and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
    that you would not believe,
    even if you were told.

Pakistan Daily Life

The taxi rattled over the rutted road.  It lurched and lunged, bouncing from side to side, creaking as if it were on the point of falling apart completely.  It was a beautiful autumn day in Islamabad with a bright sun and a mild chill in the air.  In the nicer parts of the city trees were starting to change colour, their leaves fading to red and yellow, but this was not a nice part of the city.  We were driving down a road which passes one of the largest slums in Islamabad, a place of mud huts and ramshackle roofs and filth-rimmed ditches and unemployment and hopelessness.  As we rattled down the road I looked out at the slum with despair in my heart

Scenes caught my eye as they flicked past, tiny snapshots of life lived at the fringe of society.  An elderly man was hauling a cow through the streets, tugging and shouting as the obstinate animal dug in its heels.  A younger man, perhaps my own age, was pushing a wooden trolley piled high with bananas.  Two boys were using sticks to roll bicycle tyres along the side of the road.  Tiny girls, surely not more than three or four years old, carried plastic bags stuffed with something indistinguishable, stumbling along as their tiny sandals flipped and flopped in the dust.  Another girl, maybe six or seven, sat by the side of the road, twirling her hair absent-mindedly as the cars clattered past.  The gesture reminded me of my own daughter – but I am wealthy, and so my daughter goes to school, and eats three meals a day, and sleeps in a house, and has the unimaginable luxury of being able to choose what she wants to wear on a particular day, and the inequality of this situation makes me feel like weeping.

The taxi driver saw me staring at the slum and tried to explain.  This was government land, so the people here are squatting illegally.  At some point the government will come through and clear them out, and they know this, and so they do not bother building proper houses.  They will be forced to leave, and they will find somewhere else to live, and will rebuild their pathetic dwellings of sticks and mouldy canvas, and when it rains they will get sick, and many of their children will die young, and they accept all of this with resignation.

“Their life is so difficult” said the driver.  “There is no purpose to their existence.  They may as well not have been born”.  He spoke not with malice but with sympathy.

The phrase stuck in my mind.  As a Christian I firmly believe that life has a purpose, that we were created with love and for a reason, and that every human being is precious and individual and worth something.  And yet here in this slum, and in countless millions of other slums that dot the developing world like cancer cells, life literally has no purpose.  It is a matter of scratching together enough food for the day and hoping to do the same tomorrow.  They cannot afford school fees so their children will never study and learn and so will remain poor, and thus poverty is propagated and institutionalised and the rich gift of existence is reduced to penury and wretchedness.

As we drove away the slum receded into the rear-view mirror. Soon it was gone from sight – and yet it lingers in my mind, dark and hopeless, and I do not know what to do to help.

Eid ul-Azha is one of the major Islamic festivals, roughly equivalent to Christmas in its significance.  It commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael and the provision, by God, of a ram in his place.  This is strikingly similar to the Christian version in Genesis 22, the only difference being that Christians celebrate Isaac instead of Ishmael.

Islam has more in common with Christianity than you might think…

Anyway, Muslims mark this festival by purchasing an animal – usually a sheep or goat, but sometimes a cow or even a camel – and sacrificing it.  The meat is divided up, with one third given to the poor, one third shared among family and friends, and the remaining third kept by the family.  This being Pakistan, animals are not taken into some anonymous slaughterhouse to be killed, but are instead killed and butchered in public.

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This results in immense amounts of blood spilling into the street, as you can see in the photo above!

I have to say that I rather like the Eid tradition.  Large amounts of money are spent and a significant chunk of it goes towards the poor, who enjoy a few days of plenty, while everyone buys new clothes, visits friends, and enjoys a holiday.

Less pleasant is the fact that my 3 year old daughter was becoming very attached to the cow residing in our front drive for the last few days.  The cow is now in pieces, some of which are sitting in our freezer thanks to the generosity of our landlord, and my little girl keeps asking where the cow went…

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It is emotionally difficult to live in Pakistan.  The three years we have spent here have been characterised by emotional turbulence more than anything else. 

There are many reasons for this.  Firstly, because life anywhere in the developing world is difficult.  Westerners like me have grown accustomed to having it easy: good healthcare, reliable electricity, smooth roads, trustworthy police.  Life in the developing world is less easy.  We have power cuts all the time.  The roads are often pitted and broken.  People die for reasons that would be unthinkable in the West: malnutrition, cholera, medical incompetence.  People in the West take comfort for granted, seeing it almost as a birthright, and the thought of life being uncomfortable or difficult is foreign.  Over here, for many people, life is a constant struggle, a trail of sweat and labour and sorrow and danger and uncertainty.  Many people do not know where the next day’s food is coming from.   Can you imagine looking into the faces of your children and not being able to assure them that there will be breakfast in the morning?

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It breaks my heart every single day to see people struggling with everyday life.  In the Bible Jesus wrote that “I have come that people may have life, and have it in all its abundance”.  And yet even now, two thousand years after Jesus walked the earth, billions of people, perhaps the majority of people on the planet, spend their years in difficulty and pain.  There must be more to life than this.

My heart breaks every time a thin-faced beggar knocks on the car window asking for money, every time I see a grandmother toiling down the road with a load of firewood piled on her back, every time I see children as young as 4 or 5 sifting through piles of stinking garbage to find bottles or rags that they might be able to sell for a few rupees.  God did not create people so that they might spend their days in such rancid poverty.  There must be more to life than this.  There must be a way to bring wholeness to Pakistan.

We were sitting down to dinner (shepherd’s pie and guava crumble, since even we can’t eat Pakistani food every single meal) and had just said grace.  Thanking God for the food feels particularly important in a country where so many have so little.  Our three-year-old daughter said “Amen” and looked up at me with a smile.

“I love God” she said.  “He’s nice”.

Our four-year-old son looked thoughtful, wrinkling his nose as he does when tussling with a particularly difficult topic.

“I love God sometimes, but not all the time”.

He thought for a minute.

“Sometimes my love for him is big, sometimes it’s small”.

He paused again.

“But he’s always nice”.

Our third child, and second daughter, was born recently.  This leads me to make two observations: firstly, that three children are a LOT more work than two, and secondly, that life is unfair.

 I’ll explain.  A Pakistani friend of ours also had his third child recently.  Like us he had a boy, then a girl, and now another girl.  Like us he loves his children very much.  Like us he and his wife are devoted parents.  Like us they are delighted to have three healthy children.  But there the similarities end and the differences begin.

 Our kids have Western passports – two each, actually, since they have dual nationality.  For both of those countries the life expectancy is over 80 years.  The literacy rate is effectively 100%.  If we had to return to either of our home countries our kids would benefit from high-quality healthcare at a low cost.  Both of our home governments score highly on transparency ratings, since Western countries have largely eliminated corruption.  If we got into trouble our foreign offices would, in all probability, get us out of it.  While it’s impossible to say that our children will have trouble-free lives, their passports give them a ticket to a life of significant privilege.  They are probably among the most privileged children in the world.

 And our friends’ kids?  Pakistani life expectancy is 65 years, its literacy rate 57%.  Quality healthcare is available here, at a cost.  If you can’t pay for it, you can’t have it.  The average salary is around $3,000 a year, less than a tenth of that in the Western countries whose passports my children possess.  We went to visit our friend recently.  His new daughter, a month older than ours, weighs less now than our daughter did at birth, and she’s growing a lot more slowly.  This is partly due to the fact that she is being fed cow’s milk, since that is what the doctor recommended.  A better doctor would not recommend cow’s milk, but they can’t afford a better doctor, so their daughter’s development is suffering.

 So, to summarise, our daughters were born within a month of each other.  One is statistically likely to live 20% longer, be healthier, earn ten times more money, and is twice as likely to receive an education.

 May God have mercy on a world in which, even at birth, the paths of childrens’ lives are so unjustly laid out.