Christian festivity in Pakistan

By Brig Samson S Sharaf

Last year, I joined Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf rally at Karachi on Christmas Day. Despite criticism by many Christian organizations, I had braved and asked Christians to show up at the venue for a national purpose that coincided with the symbolism of Christmas. Thousands came with Christmas buntings, Santas and wreaths of holly in their hands. There were also a few Santas roaming amidst the crowd distributing sweets. To forego the family reunion at Rawalpindi was secondary to the message of this historic gathering; Peace. My purpose was to emphasize the message of Peace on Earth, the main theme of Christmas, to reaffirm my commitments to my motherland standing next to the mausoleum of our founding father and empathize with the elusive concept of Jinnah Ka Pakistan. There were many ideas in my mind but I could only speak out a few points before the highly charged and emotional crowd. In that event, I fired the first salvo for Imran Khan. I recited Sibte Ali by saying that just like my motherland; I am at war within living in the dark alleys opposite the brightly lit palaces. The crowd roared and went into frenzy. This was the best Christmas in my living memory.

I have often wondered why Muslims and Christians cannot celebrate a joint religious festival like that memorable Karachi gathering. They do so in Jordon, Palestine, Turkey and Syria. In Damascus and Bethlehem, successive prayers are held by Muslims and Christians in the same or adjacent compounds. The Syrian government takes special care of the shrine of St. John the Baptist which is visited equally by Christians and Muslims. In recent Tahrir Square demonstrations in Egypt, Christians used to guard the prayer lines when their Muslim countrymen offered prayers. In Malaysia, the symbols of Diwali a Hindu festival were all over towns and shopping malls. Malay Muslims, Indian Hindus and Chinese all reached out to each other making festivities a national and tourism event. The maintenance and ambiance of Batu Caves in Kuala Lampur is in complete contrast to the derelict state of Katas Temple in Kallar Kahar. Treacherously, the sources of pristine natural springs that kept the Temple green and fauna flourishing have been handed over to cement factories with complete disregard to the sentiments of Pakistani Hindus, who never exist in the national memory.  Participation in minority festivities remain a taboo nurtured by narratives imposed on the people of Pakistan by regimes relying on religion for legitimacy.

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Religious minorities despite being staunch supporters of Qaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah have existed on the sidelines of this divisive narrative in a perpetual state of awe and alienation. Every word they utter and every paper they discard is a careful and cautious activity lest they are caught by the forces of greed and intolerance for a blasphemous activity. They have gone about their pursuits relentlessly, unnoticed, unrewarded and always on the receiving end. Their role in all sectors of Pakistan like education, charity, health, social work, corporate sectors, and agriculture and defence forces remains enviable.

The Ministry of National Harmony arranges special functions on 11 August to celebrate Minorities Day in commemoration of Qaid e Azam’s speech to the Constituent Assembly. Each year the Prime Minister and the President hold a dinner for religious minorities attended by diplomats. Those who attend are carefully chosen leaving no room for dissenters. Minority Wings of political parties hold special exclusive gathering in Christmas Season. The occasion ends with the traditional cake cutting and then everything is forgotten till the next year. This is as far as these state sponsored pluralism gets. The fact that 18th amendment is the cause of further discrimination and alienation is the dark side of such staged operas.

Yet there are reasons to feel reassured. In the rural areas, where there are many Christian villages, the celebrations transcend religious divides. Armed forces are perhaps the most plural and regularly host Christmas celebrations. They are also more open and inclusive as a large number of officers and soldiers make their ranks.

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In search for what inhibits these inter religious contacts, there could be two explanations.

Treatment of Hindus and Schedule Cast Pakistan is colored by the perceptions of an enemy India. As such, these people are seen as an extension of the eternal enemy and therefore infidels. Their places of worship have been vandalized, ransacked and dilapidated in Pakistan because cognitively, they are seen as an enemy and not Pakistanis. How else could one explain the condition of centuries old Ketas Temple in the Salt Range, destruction of a Jain Mandir (not Hindus) with a minister wielding an axe in Lahore and vandalism of a Jain Mandir in Nagarparker as reaction to Babri Mosque?

The state sponsored vandalism is not far behind. The worst treatment has come at the hands of Auqaf Department that has commercialized or allowed qabza groups to vandalize, destroy and occupy Hindu, Jain and Sikh places of worship.  Recently, a centuries old mandir in Karachi became victim of state vandalism on the pretext that it had been constructed on state land.

In the same stride, common perception holds Christians of Pakistan as an extension of the colonial era and not indigenous people. The tall and spacious churches build during colonialism amidst tightly packed surroundings also fortify these notions. To qabza groups, these spacious lawns and grounds are an easy kill and therefore occupied. In Lahore the Punjab Government in connivance with some Christian politicians and Church Leaders bulldozed the century old Christian Home called Gosha e Aman, ostensibly to bring the land in use for educational activities. Vast tracts of church lands have been sold illegally all over Pakistan.

The small but affluent Parsee community in Pakistan is also in cross hairs. Many of the properties in Karachi are in a dilapidated condition due to stay orders, illegal occupations and exodus of its owners. Qabza groups in Karachi are rejuvenated after the sad demise of Ardeshir Cowasjee, the most vocal of civil rights activists.

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If Pakistan has to move towards a truly plural agenda; in which diverse religions can exist and celebrate in inclusive environments, the state has the responsibility to move beyond the routine lip service to tangible steps that involve the religious minorities in mainstream activities and joint celebrations. Some of the decisions need to be taken relate to 18th Amendment and electoral procedures. The political parties have to move beyond exclusive wings to more tolerant and plural policies ceding space to Non Muslims. It is also the responsibility of the so called vibrant civil society to come to fore and educate people on a truly Pakistani construct.  Most, in line with the identical description of the Immaculate Conception of Mother Mary in Surah E Maryam, Pakistani religious scholars need to take the initiative in making Christmas a truly co-religious celebration.

In Pakistan Studies syllabus, chapters on the role of Christians and Schedule Cast Hindus as lieutenants of Qaide E Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah have to be inserted.  Non Muslim war heroes of Pakistan’s wars have to be recognized and appreciated in text books. Most, all hate literature has to give way to stories that bring national harmony. Subjects like Surah e Maryam and the Treaty of St. Catherine (Messaq e Saina) needs to figure more prominently in our educational literature.

In a recent Carol singing celebration at St. Mary’s College Rawalpindi, it was heartening to hear the description of the birth of Jesus Christ according to the Holy Quran. For most Muslims and Christians present, it was a surprisingly identical account of Christmas. For Pakistanis, it is a message to become more communitarianism that binds communities rather than divides them. Peace is the message of Christmas where faiths meet.