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Near our house is the visa office for most Western countries.  Anyone living in Pakistan who needs a visa for the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia or a range of other destinations makes a pilgrimage here, armed with application forms, documents, flight bookings, and a face of grim determination.  Every morning I see them queueing up, hopeful and perhaps just a touch desperate.  They are eager to leave.  Many people are.

One of the many contradictions of which the nation of Pakistan is constructed is that people here feel both a fierce sense of national pride and a strong tendency towards self-criticism.  Many Pakistanis love Pakistan deeply and proudly, and yet criticise it without hesitation.  Many would leave, given the chance.  Many have already left, setting up colonies in Toronto and New York, London and Birmingham and Melbourne.  Even the fundamentalists who scream hatred of the USA would give their right arm for a chance to live there.

We have done the opposite, moving from the West to live in Pakistan, and everyone thinks we’re insane.  At first I did too, wondering exactly why it was that we had chosen to swap reliable electricity and sensible governance for the myriad eccentricities (if I’m being kind) and baffling illogicalities (if I’m not) of the Land of the Pure.  The electricity comes and goes.  Corruption is rampant.  The police can’t be trusted.  It’s hot and dusty half the year, cold and dusty the other half, and everyone stares at me whenever I walk outside.

Yet it would break my heart to leave.  Why?  What would I miss?  The straightforward kindness of the people, for one thing, who have every reason to resent a British man and yet never seem to do so.  The kindness and generosity of Muslim people.  The smell of rain on dusty ground.  The epic monsoon thunderstorms which split the sky asunder with a terrifying roar.  The mountains of the north.  The chance, the wonderful chance, to do something positive in a place of need, to praise Pakistan, to honour its people, to promote education, to bring peace between Muslim and Christian in a time of great fear and mistrust.  The opportunity to see God move in the lives of others, to see him mould and change and refine us, to experience his love precisely when we most need it.

I do not want to leave, not yet.  There is so much good here, so much beauty, and we are almost uniquely privileged to witness it when so few Westerners ever come here.  I love Pakistan very much.  I rather suspect I always will.

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He died suddenly, over dinner.  Chest pains had been bothering him for a few hours but he disregarded them, saying that it was merely indigestion and that people should stop worrying.  He went out for dinner with friends and family at a restaurant and it was there that he died, collapsing suddenly as his heart stopped, his life vanishing as suddenly as the morning mist.

He was a Christian and had worked at the site manager for a church for several decades, earning a reputation for trustworthiness and kindness.  It was to that church that his body was brought.  A coffin was prepared, a thing of thin wood and black fabric, decorated with a single strip of silver fabric, and into the coffin his body was placed, smartly dressed in a clean shirt and trousers as though he did not want to disappoint God by slipping into eternity in old clothes.

The relatives all came.  In Pakistan burials take place quickly, usually within 24 hours, and no relative would want to disrespect the deceased by not attending the burial.  They came from all over the Punjab.  They left jobs and family life; no employer would begrudge them the day off.  Family networks are strong here, one of the few sources of support available to Pakistanis bereft of money or connections.

The funeral was swift: a Punjabi zabur (Psalm), sung from memory, and a reading from Scripture.  A simple but powerful message was given from the pulpit, one of strength and comfort drawn from the truth of the Bible and the confidence that Christians have in the eventual resurrection from the dead.  The congregation were invited to gather around the coffin.  A woman fainted.  Others wept, wailing openly over the face of their uncle or brother or father or friend, their grief made raw by the suddenness of it all: one minute ordering food and sipping Coke, the next dead, gone, a life ended.

The coffin was placed into a van and was driven to the cemetery.  Here are buried Christians from several centuries, from British imperialists to contemporary Pakistani Christians: he would share a patch of soil with the deceased “NCOs and Men of the Somerset Light Infantry, 1917-1919” and with his own wife, buried nearby after passing away a decade ago.

The mourners filed through the cemetery as dusk settled over the city, illuminating their path with the light of their mobile phones.  The coffin was nailed shut, his face seeing the light for the very last time, and was laid into the grave.  More prayers were said, spoken loudly over the sound of sobbing.  A bottle of rosewater was poured over the coffin and handfuls of soil were tossed in.  His son wailed, sudden and stunningly loud.  The grave was filled.  Lavish handfuls of rose petals were poured on top and candles and incense sticks were studded into the soil until the fragrant smoke rendered the fresh soil all but invisible.

Christians do not grieve as those without hope.  This does not mean, though, that we do not grieve.  The pain of burying a father still cuts deep.  The sudden disappearance of a human being, the vanishing of an existence, the final full stop at the end of a life’s tale – this is an event accompanied by pain and loss.  Yet there is still hope.  There is always hope.  More than that: there is assurance.  As the mourners made their way out of the dark cemetery, as the bats swooped and flitted around the streetlights, squeaking softly, hope still lingered, delicate and eternal.

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I finished speaking and sat down.  I took a long drink of water; public speaking always seems to leaves me parched.  The lady next to me turned to me with a sad look in her eye.

“5 years in Pakistan!” she exclaimed, shaking her head.  “How do you manage to live in such a terrible place?”.

I must have looked as astonished as I felt, because she felt the need to clarify her comment.

“You’re a Christian, and Christians in Pakistan are always living in fear from the Muslims.  How do you cope with it?”.

I thought for a second, then replied.

“I cope with it by remembering that what you’ve said is not true”.

I was at an event in the UK speaking alongside other people working with the church in different parts of the world.  I had shared a bit about working alongside the church in Pakistan and about what it’s like in general to live there.  I had shared some anecdotes of Pakistani life and about what it’s like to live among such hospitable, warm people who go to such lengths to welcome us.  I also spoke of the pain experienced by many people – Christian, Muslim, and other groups – in Pakistan as they cope with instability and difficulty.  Apparently nothing I said registered with this particular lady, who was more than ready to condemn Pakistan as a hotbed of fanaticism and suffering, despite never having been there.

I am coming to realise that this narrative of a brutal, terrorised Pakistan is more widespread than I had thought.  Everyone, it seems, is perfectly ready to accept that the portrayal of Pakistan in the media as a place of cruelty and oppression is accurate, and as so few Westerners ever bother to travel to Pakistan to have this crude stereotype challenged, it obstinately persists.

What really bothers me more than anything else is that Christian organisations are involved.  There is no shortage of organisations which exist to support the persecuted church – and yet more often than not, this support goes no further than highlighting instances of persecution and then asking for money.  There are Christian organisations out there which directly benefit from publicising the worst things about Pakistan.  It’s practically an industry, and it sickens me.

Bad things happen in Pakistan.  Of course they do.  After five years there I could hardly fail to notice it.  Yet by focussing only on the negative aspects of Pakistan and sparing not a moment’s thought for the good aspects – the astonishing hospitality, the kindness, the warmth, the selflessness of so many Pakistanis, the many Muslim leaders I know who go to great lengths to support inter-faith dialogue in Pakistan, the many Muslim friends who call me to apologise whenever Christian suffer in Pakistan, the taxi-drivers who refuse my money on the grounds that I am a guest – when we ignore this side of life we are not being truthful, and we are not being fair.

I spoke to the lady for a few minutes, giving her a few examples of the beauty of Pakistan and of the kindness of its people.  She seemed surprised, but happy.  Then she added a question which is still resonating with me:

“Why don’t we hear more about it?”.

We sat in the restaurant having breakfast.  This is one of my favourite meals of the day when done in proper Pakistani fashion: delicious parathas, fried circles of dough enriched with ghee, and puris, deep-fried dough puffs as light as air, with spicy omelettes and chickpea curry.  Everything was fresh and hot and we washed it all down with sweet yoghurt lassi and Kashmiri tea.

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Then I looked out of the window and saw three girls watching us through the plate glass.  With their pale skin and piercing eyes they had to be Afghans.  Their dupattas were wrapped tightly around their heads and they stood in silence, unmoving, watching steadily as I helped our daughter finish her drink, holding the straw so she could sip the last bits of lassi from the glass.  They looked similar enough to be sisters, aged perhaps 5, 7 and 9.  The oldest held a scruffy sack over her shoulder.  They would spend the day scavenging through the bazaars of Islamabad, collecting old bottles and rags to sell for a few rupees.  The restaurant’s cook, seeing them staring at us, started to shoo them away.  Perhaps he thought they would put us off our breakfast – and besides, Afghans are not popular in Pakistan.

I beckoned the waiter over and asked him to send breakfast out to the girls.  He nodded, smiling, and called to the cook to start preparing food for them.  A few minutes later a package of food was pressed into their hands and they were shooed away.  I had assumed they would eat it themselves but no, it was safely stowed away to be taken home for the family.  One of them, the oldest, smiled shyly as she skipped away.

Later, when we left, I saw the girls scampering away from our car in the car park.  I looked, surprised, and saw three stars which they had drawn in the dust of the rear windscreen.  Three stars scrawled in the dirt, a tiny fragment of beauty in a world in profound need of restoration.  The girls skipped away laughing, and, rounding a corner, were gone.

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A Pakistani Christian friend of mine recently travelled to the UK, Ireland and the USA to speak about Pakistan.  He visited a number of churches and Christian organisations and spoke about Christian work in Pakistan, highlighting the opportunities for Christians to promote education, healthcare, and community cohesion.  He would then pause for questions.

In London someone in the audience put their hand up and said “What about Asia Bibi?” – a Pakistani Christian lady who has been on death row in Lahore for several years for allegedly committing blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed.

He was surprised, but answered the question.

At his next speaking engagement he did the same presentation, again asked for questions, and again someone in the audience put their hand up and asked about Asia Bibi.

This happened in Belfast, Dublin, Oxford, Southall – and then all over again once he got to the USA.  The first question that the audience asked was, without fail, about Asia Bibi.  Often the only topic that people raised was persecution – and this in spite of the fact that his presentation had been positive, mentioning the positive aspects of life in Pakistan and the many opportunities for Christians to contribute to Pakistani society.  For some reason people in the Western world have got the impression that life for Pakistani Christians is an unrelenting slog of suffering, persecution, oppression, and suicide bombings.

Here’s the truth: it isn’t.

It really isn’t.  Somewhere between 1-2% of the population of Pakistan is Christian.  Although that is a small percentage it amounts to several million Christians – not that dissimilar from the number of Christians in modern Britain.  And almost all of the time they go about their lives like everyone else in Pakistan: going to work, putting their kids through school, buying food, worrying about rising prices, and drinking tea with their friends and family.

Does persecution happen?  Yes, of course.  Incidents of mob violence and individual harrassment happen every year.  Yet we need to put this in perspective: if a few hundred Pakistani Christians suffer persecution each year, it represents a tiny proportion of the whole Christian community.  That doesn’t make the incidents of mob violence any less repugnant and heinous – last year a Christian couple were burned alive in a brick kiln, the year before that 118 Christians were killed when two suicide bombers attacked All Saints church in Peshawar – but it puts things into context.  Shi’a Muslims, for example, suffer persecution far more frequently than Christians do.

We ought to keep calling out for justice for Pakistani minorities who suffer.  It is a key human rights issue and a betrayal of the vision for Pakistan that its founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, had, when he said that Pakistan would be a refuge for people of all faiths or none.  Yet we must also be sure to keep this in perspective, to view isolated incidents in the context of the whole of Pakistan, and to refuse to let fear and anger blind us to the truth.

It might also be worth remembering that Jesus himself told his disciples “the world will hate you because of me” and “in this world you will have trouble”.  It won’t make the trouble any less pleasant, but at least we won’t be so surprised…

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.