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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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When I was a child the season of Advent seemed magical to me.  A time of anticipation, largely of the food and presents that would come my way when the Advent candle finally burned down to 25.  A time of joyous expectation.  It tied in with the decorations in the town centre, with the Christmas music on the radio, with all of the trappings of Christmas in a Western country.

The older I became, the more the glitter and magic of Advent wore off.  As I thought about the birth of Jesus it struck me that this was a rescue mission, a final and stunning act of lavish and proactive generosity on the part of a God who could not bear to be separated from his people.  My rejoicing was replaced with wonder as I realised just how much humanity needed God, just how much God longed to be reunited with humanity, just how extreme and astonishing the rescue mission was.

And now in Pakistan Advent seems more miraculous, more bizarre, more incredible than ever.  Most people here simply cannot believe that God would stoop to enter the world as a human: it would be beneath him, unworthy of his majesty.  I can understand the objection.  The incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is a phenomenon not seen in any other religion, at any other time, anywhere else in the world.  How could a divinity lower himself to such a level?  It is unthinkable that God would require food, would stub his toe, would cry.  I understand the objection, though I do not agree with it.  The aspect of God’s nature which makes the incarnation possible is the unthinkable depth and breadth of his love.  He would do anything, anything, to be with his children.  What father would do less?

Apart from Pakistani Christians, nobody here marks Christmas.  Save for the gaudily-decorated lobbies of the expensive Western hotels there are no decorations, no Christmas songs, no Christmas adverts on TV.  We celebrate it quietly.  I enjoy this very much.  It is in keeping with the season of Advent: a secret rescue mission, a tiny baby delivered in a humble room in an irrelevant backwater of the Roman Empire, welcomed by lowly shepherds.  The baby who would go on to turn the world upside down after three decades in isolation.  Jesus, the ultimate sleeper cell.  Not many here know of him, but he is there, and his love is as broad and deep as it ever was.

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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…

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“Of course, the thing I most object to in their religion is the violence of it” said one man to the other.  “It seems that they are unable to express their religious views without killing people who disagree with them.”

 “I agree” said the second man to the first, stroking his beard pensively.  “Their track record of combining their faith with military power speaks for itself.  They claim that theirs is a religion of peace and yet we see them attacking others, declaring war, and invading foreign countries in the name of their God”.

 “Not to mention persecuting people of their own faith whose interpretation of their scriptures differs from their own!” added the first man angrily.

 Both men paused to reflect.

 “And then there’s the fact that they always break their word.  They make treaties with their enemies and then break them.  Always have done, always will.  Can’t trust anyone from that religion, history proves that quite well” snorted the second man.

 “And don’t even get me started on their contempt for science and progress” said the first man, stabbing the air with an enraged finger to emphasise his point.  “The way they persecuted scientists and constantly stand in the way of progress and development.  Some of the poorest countries in the world are based on their religion”.

 “Too true, too true” confirmed the second man sadly.

 “Listen to that, the sound of their religious building calling the faithful to prayer” said the first man.

 Both men stopped to listen to the noise of the church bells tolling.  The sound, mournful and plangent, echoed from the top of the church tower.  They listened sadly, then sat in thoughtful silence as the sound of Christian worship throbbed from the church.

 “The thing is, though” said the first man quietly, “I can’t stop thinking about that Jesus of theirs.”

 Another pause, then:

 “If only they behaved more like him”.