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Boost for Mirpuri link, as bishop visits Pakistan

18 October 2019


The Mirpur reservoir. From left to right: Shahzad Kurram. Sialkot diocesan treasurer and youth coordinator; the Revd Phil Simpson,  diocese of Guildford interfaith advisor; Ijaz Noori; Abdul Khayum Kamer, city president and lawyer and former Mayor; Bishop Watson; two members of the local welcoming committee

The Mirpur reservoir. From left to right: Shahzad Kurram. Sialkot diocesan treasurer and youth coordinator; the Revd Phil Simpson,  diocese of Guildfo...

IN THE 1960s, an enormous dam was built in Mirpur, Pakistan, displacing thousands of people. Five thousand miles away in Britain, the Government was seeking cheap labour to man factories in industrial towns, offering legal and financial help to those considering a move.

Sixty years later, it is estimated that between 60 and 70 per cent of British Pakistanis are Mirpuris. From some villages in the district, located in Pakistan- administered Kashmir, more than half the population migrated to Britain.

While many settled in large northern towns, such as Bradford, a number made their home in Woking, which is home today to about 8000 Mirpuris. Last month, the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, made a reciprocal trip, visiting the district as part of a tour of the diocese of Sialkot, the diocese’s new link partner.

The “big issue” that people had wanted him to talk about was the lock-down in Indian-controlled Kashmir (News, 16 August), he reported last week. “It is a pretty horrendous situation. There are real concerns about people’s safety, and anxiety about what will happen in the future there, and the intentions of the Indian government.

“Those concerns were coming through very loud and clear, and also the sense that the world press was not picking up on the urgency of the situation. There was a strong sense in Pakistan that stories are always negative about Pakistan.”

While the Archbishop of Canterbury made no public reference to Kashmir during his trip to India last month, Bishop Watson spoke about the situation on every stop on his trip, including one televised appearance — “generating loud applause every time I did so” — observing that “any persecution of minorities is something that we need to stand up against as a human-rights issue.”

The visit had also afforded an opportunity to advocate on behalf of Christians in Mirpur, he said. “I was able to talk about how many Mirpuris now live in the UK, and about the permission given for a large number of mosques to be constructed, and to say, as a reciprocal thing, how good it would be if there was a church building in Mirpuri to accommodate Christian families.”

The diocesan link between Guildford and Sialkot is new, originating in a meeting in Woking between Bishop Watson and the Bishop of Sialkot, the Rt Revd Alwin Samuel, praised by Bishop Watson for his “uniquely gentle, accessible, encouraging style of episcopacy”.

Speaking last week, Bishop Watson noted that Bishop Samuel had inherited many challenges, including 11 lawsuits, several of which had been initiated by the illegal activities of corrupt Christians. Meanwhile, persecution of Christians, as illustrated by the case of Asia Bibi (News, 10 May), remained a live issue. His own itinerary had illustrated the security threat to Christians in some areas.

Much work had had to be done to secure permission for him to preach in Sialkot Cathedral, located in the military cantonment, and at various points he was joined by an armed guard, “which was both reassuring . . . and a bit alarming”. At passport control, enquiries had been made “why I was there, and how far I was planning to propagate my faith”. He had learned from Bishop Samuel that it was important for Christians “to be able to say, ‘I am Christian but also a loyal Pakistani’”.

But there were also signs of growth in the Church. The trip began with the Sialkot Convention: a mass gathering of Christians which dates back to 1904, and is associated with an American missionary in the Punjab, John Hyde. At about 5 a.m., about 8000 gathered for a communion service, some of whom had slept outside during the night.

In the village of Khewra, he found that a “considerable number” of formerly Hindu salt-miners had converted to Christianity. He had also been “amazed” by some of the nascent interfaith work he saw, headed by a Muslim leader, Ijaz Noori, while social outreach was illustrated at a dinner with about a dozen former drug addicts helped by the diocese.

The two Bishops plan to meet at next year’s Lambeth Conference. Conscious that Pakistan had not always been well-served by diocesan links, Bishop Watson has returned with a number of suggestions to grow connections, including partnerships between schools. He noted that Bishop Samuel’s main priority was prayer.

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