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?”.