CHRISTIANS in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan are providing healthcare to the Taliban and to al-Qaeda, the Bishop of Peshawar, the Rt Revd Mano Rumalshah, said last Friday, on a visit to the UK.
The Bishop appealed for the Anglican Communion to support the 100,000 Christians in the province, who are living in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.
“Neither the laws of Pakistan nor the laws of Afghanistan function here in the tribal areas. For al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the godfather is the same: Osama bin Laden; the motivation is the same, and the strategy is the same. The only difference is that the Taliban are the locals, and al-Qaeda are the foreigners. They are our neighbours. In Bannu, every other person in the street I meet could be Taliban. They lead an ordinary life, until they are called to fight.”
Then the differences emerge. “The schools and the madrassas are training children from 12 years old and upwards to be suicide-bombers.” There were between 50 to 60 suicide attacks in Pakistan every couple of months, he said.
One of his clergy, in the North Waziristan region, had described how the community commissioned a young man as a suicide-bomber. “Prayers are said, and the Holy Qur’an placed on his head, and on top of that a metal key to symbolise the key to paradise. It is a day of celebration for the community.”
In this volatile setting, Christians — 85 per cent of whom work in menial jobs — provide care for all in need. “We are trying to recreate God’s love as we have experienced it in Jesus Christ, and those people of God are the Taliban and al-Qaeda and Christians, whoever they are. This is our heritage through mission, and it is our privilege. Our three or four health centres are services in diakonia.”
He spoke of the work of six Lutheran women in a hall that they share with an al-Qaeda camp. “They are working in an area where even the bravest of the brave would shudder to go. We clean the wounds of the children, and that gives us the right to be of service there. But how do we serve others if we do not get support? This is why I yell at our global Christian siblings for support.”
Yet the Church faces great problems: “Legal discrimination against me on the basis of my religion — that I cannot tolerate. . . That is a crime against humanity, and that is what is being done to us. We are in the impossible situation of a slow death, a slow suffocation by prejudice, despite all our service. It is the challenge of our times. How do we co-exist in a situation of majority Islam?
“Our destiny is to exist as a Church and a people of God to encourage reconciled relationships. My challenge is that our destiny is to embrace the enemy — to smell the sweat of the enemy — and that is why God has supported us and places us there. We have not gone underground, and I am proud of that.”
Churches in his diocese continued to receive threatening letters, Bishop Rumalshah said. “They say, ‘Either become a Muslim, leave, or be killed’ — that is the formula. There have been dozens of those over the last four or five years.”
Relations with Muslims needed to go beyond “tea and sympathy”. “We must engage with jihadists and intellectual jihadists, and challenge them. If they say Islam is a religion of peace, we welcome that, and let’s work together for that.”
He particularly wanted to acknowledge the work of the Barnabas Fund in providing practical support. “They are a maligned group in Britain, and regarded as Christian Taliban. But they specifically want to help the persecuted Church.”
He also expressed his fears for the safety of the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, who has announced his resignation in order to work in support of persecuted Christians. “There are some of us who fear for his life in Pakistan because he has been bold enough to go against the stream in Britain and has said things publicly about what has been going on (and we know it has been going on).”
The Church has also been helping refugees from the exodus from the Swat Valley during the recent fighting between Pakistani forces and the Taliban. “The work goes on,” Bishop Rumalshah said.