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On April 13th 1919 protesters had gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, India.  Several thousand people in all packed the public gardens.  The British Army officer in charge of the city, Colonel Reginald Dyer, assembled a unit of 90 Gurka soldiers under British command and proceeded to the gardens.  He ensured that the exits were blocked and ordered his troops, armed with Lee-Enfield rifles, to open fire.  They continued to fire for ten minutes until their ammunition was expended.

The official death toll, according to the British, was 379 dead and over a thousand wounded.  The report issued by the Indian National Congress claimed that more than a thousand had been killed.  The alleyways leading to the garden were too narrow for Dyer’s armoured cars and so he had to leave them behind.  At the inquiry he testified that he would have used them, and their machine guns, if he had been able to.

I visited Amritsar on my way from India to Pakistan in 2009, ninety years after the atrocity.  I vividly recall visiting the Jallianwala Bagh and walking around the memorial site which felt very much like sacred ground for the Indian independence movement.  Bullet holes in the walls were still visible.  The well, down which many people threw themselves to avoid the bullets, is still visible.  120 bodies were later removed from its depths.

Yet the impression which is seared most powerfully onto my memory is the reception I received from Indians visiting the site.  I wanted to hide away, to go incognito, to avoid being connected with the massacre.  I am British, after all, and although even my grandparents were not born in 1919 I nevertheless feel a sense of regret and grief at what happened.  While not personally responsible for it I am nevertheless connected, by dint of my passport if nothing else.  I tried to avoid people, to avoid getting into conversations, and yet Indian people are so welcoming that this was impossible.

A group of Indian students came over to say hello.  I explained what I was doing and told them about my impressions of India and of Amritsar.  Eventually I couldn’t hold it in any more, and I blurted out:

“I’m so sorry for what happened here”.

The students smiled.  Oh please, do not worry.  It was a long time ago.  These things are in the past.  You should not worry about it.  You are welcome.  You are most welcome.

“You are most welcome in India”.

We shook hands and departed, and as I walked back to my hotel in the searing May heat my footsteps were oddly light.

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At first sight the land of Pakistan is almost entirely Islamic.  Its population is something like 97% Muslim, of course, and mosques are found everywhere, from rural villages to large cities.  Yet a closer inspection reveals a surprising truth: that this land has a history far more diverse and complex than would first seem to be the case.

This becomes very clear when you visit the Hindu temple complex at Katas Raj, near Chakwal in the Punjab.  The complex is located in the Salt Range, an immense line of mountains which separate the plains of the Punjab from the Potohar Plateau.  These mountains were formed when an ancient sea, long since dry, was thrust upwards by tectonic activity.  The temples are located in a fold of land in this beautiful part of the country.

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Hindu teaching has it that the temples were formed from the tears of the grief-stricken Lord Shiva on the death of his wife, Sati.  There are seven temples on the site, each dedicated to a particular Hindu deity, and many of them still contain original features such as carved wooden door frames or magnificent frescoes depicting scenes from Hindu mythology.

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In 1947, when the tragedy of Partition tore the Punjab in half, the vast majority of Hindus left the newly-formed nation of Pakistan and migrated to India.  The complex was left to deteriorate, with nobody showing an interest in its upkeep, and signs of decay are evident.  The pool itself, formed from the tears of Lord Shiva, is muddy and neglected; nearby cement factories have drained much of its water and the remaining water is muddy and garbage-strewn.  Yet to the credit of the Pakistani government steps are being taken to rectify this situation: many of the temples have new rooves, are newly painted, and even the damaged frescoes are being repaired.

The temple even hosts Hindu pilgrims, many of whom come from the southern province of Sindh, and some of whom even come in selected groups from India during auspicious Hindu festivals.  Given the hostility between India and Pakistan and the agony of Partition, it is surprising and heartening that Katas Raj exists at all, and particularly encouraging that the Pakistani government is taking steps to restore and protect it.  Long may this continue.

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The mega-church was huge.  A semi-circle of comfortable seats faced a large stage backed with three large TV screens.  Cameras were positioned in the centre and on either side, relaying live images to the screens.  The worship was led by a Malaysian man with several backing singers, both male and female.  There were well over a thousand people in attendance, almost entirely young Malaysians.

I have an instinctive dislike for mega-churches.  The kind of slick, prosperous message which they often pump out often seems to be at odds with the humility and simplicity of Christ: rather too much money lavished on TV screens and sound systems; perhaps it would be better spent on serving the poor.  Yet this one didn’t seem especially prosperous, just large and energetic.

The preaching was good, Biblical, and honest.  The worship was passionate.  As a first-time visitor I was encouraged to stand and was warmly applauded by everyone.  Outside, in the lobby, there is a bookshop and a free café serving iced coffee to anyone who wants it.

Yet here is the thing that struck me the most: the overwhelming evidence demonstrating that God is doing something remarkable in the world.  The English-language congregation has an average of 1,500 attending every week.  They also have a congregation for Bahasa Malay speakers.  There is also one for Tamil-speaking Indians and Sri Lankans, another for Nepalis, and one for people from Myanmar.  The Myanmar congregation meets at midnight.  Most are restaurant workers, busy until the restaurants close at 11pm, at which point they head to church.  Hundreds of them, every week.

After the service I met some of those attending: Malay Chinese, mostly first generation believers who have come to Christ in the last few years.  I met an Iraqi Kurd, two Iranian couples, a family from southern India, an Indonesian student, a lady from Bangladesh, a group of Chinese students.  People from all nations, tribes and tongues, coming together to worship God.  The vision from Revelation is coming true in front of our eyes.

In all our talk about refugees and immigrants we focus on security, on national identity, and on the economics of immigration.  We are missing the point.  God is moving people around the world for his own purposes.  Let us, as a church, not miss the opportunity to see Biblical prophecy fulfilled before our eyes.

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I turned the key.  The engine chuntered, whirred…and stopped.  I tried again, and again.  Same result.  I sighed.  I was stuck by the side of a back street, somewhere in Pakistan, with an immobile vehicle.

This is not an ideal situation.  Before coming to Pakistan we received thorough safety and security training, and much of it seemed to revolve around attempting to avoid precisely the kind of situation in which I found myself.  Alone, stuck, on a hot day.  Diplomats in this position would be calling their emergency contact number and having a helicopter buzz in to pick them up, but people in my position don’t have access to that kind of thing.  The day was hot, and getting hotter.  A trickle of sweat ran down my back in a particularly insidious manner.

Suddenly a taxi approached.  It is always easy to tell when a Pakistani taxi is approaching.  It makes a sound like two pounds of rusty screws inside a tin bathtub being thrown down a flight of stairs.  The rusty bathtub approached and I hailed it with enthusiasm and not a small amount of panic.  I explained to the friendly driver what my predicament was, though no explanation was really necessary: clueless foreigner, immobile car – breakdown.  It’s not as though I was stopping to enjoy the view, which consisted of a few half-dead shrubs, a rusty dumpster, and a great deal of dust.

“No problem” said the taxi driver.  “Push it, it’ll start ok”.

I went to the back of my own car and started pushing, regretting almost immediately my decision to buy a black car.  The taxi driver was in the front seat.  I pushed, and sweated, and my palms sizzled audibly, and the car started moving.  After a few seconds I broke into a slow jog and the engine chugged into life.  The car drove away, slowed down, turned round, and came back to me.  I never once entertained the notion that the taxi driver would do anything else.  Pakistan is rather wonderful in that way.

I thanked him and offered him some money.  He refused, of course.  I insisted, of course, and of course he refused again.  I smiled and stuffed it into his top pocket.

The next day I got the battery changed.  Fewer breakdowns, hopefully, but also fewer opportunities to be blessed by an unexpected person.

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The last time I was in the UK was over a year ago.  I flew in from Bahrain, stayed with my parents for one night, then flew to the Netherlands for a conference.  I haven’t spent more than a single night in my “home” country for two years.  That’s rather odd.  I grew up here, went to school and university here, all my family live here, and yet in the last two years I have spent more time in the northern areas of Pakistan than I have in the land which my passport tells me I am from.

Everything here is both instantly familiar and completely foreign.  I can tune the car radio from memory because, somehow, I know the frequencies of all my favourite stations.  I can navigate around the south of England without a map.  I walk into a pub and the barman says “Alright mate, what can I get you?” and it feels entirely natural, as if I never left.

And yet it also feels foreign.  My nephews and nieces are older, bigger, and there are more of them.  Many friends from church have moved away; at least one couple are now divorced.  At church yesterday I saw a friend’s son for the first time in two years and when he was asked if he remembered me, he shook his head and ran off to play.

After five years overseas I feel as though I belong everywhere and nowhere.  If you stuck me in a random country, anywhere in the world, I could probably manage fine.  If dropped into a Pakistani valley I could find accommodation, food, and transport home without a problem.  But the ticket queue at Basingstoke train station, or the self-checkouts at Tesco, are suddenly daunting.  I’ll need to get petrol later today and I bet I’ll have to stand there scratching my head and wondering if someone fills it for you, like in Pakistan, or if you do it yourself with a pre-authorisation from the credit card, like in Canada, or whether I have my supermarket loyalty cards any more to get a handful of points from the purchase.  Probably not.  I hope I don’t create a queue.

Perhaps this is not a bad thing.  Christians have a home, and this is not it.  Thanks be to God for that.

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I remember the first time I ever visited Canada.  I was staying with the parents of my girlfriend, who would eventually become my wife and the mother of my kids, and reading the list of phone numbers attached to the fridge in the kitchen.  The list of names struck me.  It seemed as though every single surname came from a different country: Adourian (Armenian), Hadjis (Greek), Podbielski (Polish), Yu (Chinese), Santos (Filipino)…on and on it went, a veritable United Nations of personal contacts, polyglot and multicultural, touching almost every nation in the globe from Scotland to El Salvador.  I grew up in 1980s Britain so was used to having friends from a range of countries, but never a range this wide, this disparate.

Halfway through the flight from Istanbul to Toronto I was wandering around the plane with a baby strapped to my chest.  The other three kids were sleeping, having finally exhausted the entertainment possibilities afforded by watching Tom and Jerry cartoons and pressing the call bell to ask for apple juice.  As I strolled up and down the aisles I was struck, again, by the diverse range of nationalities on board: the Pakistani family sitting behind me, the Iranian man in front of me, the elderly Greek lady who beams at me whenever I walk past and insists on patting the head of the baby on my chest.  Two rows back, as I pass, I see an Eritrean man asking a Korean for advice on filling out the customs declaration.

I always wanted to travel.  Growing up on a small island encouraged this itch to go overseas, to find new places, to leave damp weather and EastEnders as far behind me as I could manage.  I went to Bruges, Belgium, and remember staring with bewitched fascination at the departures board in the train station; from here one could take a train to places as exotic as Copenhagen, Milan, Zurich, Paris.  The departure screen at Heathrow airport had an even more powerful effect.  I was only heading to Amsterdam but handing over some more money and heading to a different gate could see me end up in Mexico City, or Calgary, or Manila.  I found it utterly thrilling.  I still do.

Perhaps that is the real power of the modern, multicultural world: that cultures that were once separated by oceans and continents are now next-door, down the street, running the local superstore.  I find this just as thrilling.  The challenges of multiculturalism are far outweighed, in my view, by the benefits.

The plane landed.  An elderly lady, either Pakistani or Indian, was waiting quietly by the aisle as everyone filtered past.  It turned out she was waiting for someone to help her fetch her suitcase from the overhead locker.  I duly took it down and handed it to her.

“Shukriya” she said quietly, “thankyou”.

“You’re welcome” I said in Urdu, and we both went our separate ways.

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We were stuck in traffic in Abbottabad.  We had turned off the main road onto a side street barely wide enough for two cars to pass.  A van was parked on the left hand side and when we pulled out to pass it, another van headed straight for us.  He screeched to a halt in front of us.  As I prepared to back up, another van pulled up behind us, and another behind him.  The van in front of us attempted to back up, but two more vans pulled up behind him.  We gazed at each other through our respective windscreens.  The engine idled away.  In the car seat behind me our infant son started to whimper.

It had been a bad week.  The attack in Lahore had shocked us deeply, dragging us into a familiar mood of anger, sorrow, and desperation.  The same evening there was a riot in Islamabad.  Schools were shut, the buses were cancelled, and the city ground to a halt.  We needed a holiday, so we loaded up the car and drove north through the green hills of Hazara District.  And now, a few metres after turning off the Karakoram Highway, we were stuck.

The crucial thing, I knew, was not to lose my temper.  But this is easier said than done when there are four small children in your car who have already driven for four hours, and when your nerves are frayed to breaking point from the stress of driving up one of the most stressful stretches of road in the country.  Pedestrians were filtering through the traffic jam, glaring at us as they squeezed past our car as though we were personally responsible.

There is something about being glared at by a succession of bearded Pakistani men which makes one reconsider one’s life options.  What a peculiar circumstance to find oneself in!  Stuck in traffic in a town four thousand miles away from my own country, eight thousand miles from my wife’s own country, in the town famous for being the final dwelling place of Osama bin Laden.  The men passing our car looked fierce, warlike, with turbans, straggly beards, and default facial expressions of profound grumpiness, as though I had wronged them in a past life.

Surrounded by seemingly hostile people I was struck with a profound sense of not wanting to be there.  Of not wanting to be in Pakistan at all, really.  A sincere desire to be somewhere, anywhere, else, preferably somewhere with a beach and a succession of cold drinks with little umbrellas in.  I couldn’t take it any more.  The heat, the traffic, the unrelenting stream of bombs and protests and overwhelming public anger, the caustic and abrasive daily grind of Pakistani life.

Suddenly the driver of the van in front of us clambered out of his vehicle and came to my window.  He looked angry.  The crowd paused to see what would happen.  I took a deep breath, prayed briefly, and opened the window.

He thrust his hand into our car and shook mine warmly.

“I am most sorry for inconvenience” he said, smiling gently.  “Perhaps if you move car back just a little bit, we will be able to make progress”.

He moved to the back of our car and encouraged the vans behind us to shuffle backwards.  One by one they did, opening up space for us to reverse into.  Once his path was clear he got back into his van and drove off.  As he passed our car he stopped, held his hand out to shake mine, and thanked me warmly.

“Thank you so much, sir” he said with a simple smile.  “Welcome to Pakistan”.