Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. – Col. 4:5
Opportunity is not the word that comes to mind when Christians think of Pakistan.
After the Islamic Republic of Pakistan gained sovereignty in the 1947 partitioning of British India, a series of bloody riots drove nearly 10 million Muslim refugees to the nascent nation state, while just as many Hindus and Sikhs fled to predominantly Hindu India. Following the 1971 independence of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) and the 1977-1988 military dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, religious minorities declined in both numbers and influence, as Pakistani law became increasingly repressive.
Today, an estimated 4 million Christians live in Pakistan, mostly in ghettoized communities in Punjab province. They represent only 2% of Pakistan’s 199 million inhabitants, of whom 97% are Muslims (after Indonesia, Pakistan is the world’s second largest Muslim country). According to Open Doors’ 2016 World Watch List, Pakistan ranks sixth among nations where Christians face the most severe persecution, after North Korea, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Syria.
Religious Extremism in Pakistan
All too often, it is religious extremism that propels Pakistan into Western headlines (see Maqsood Kamil’s Feb. 2016 InSights Essay on Religious Extremism in Pakistan: A Christian Response). Three months ago, the internet teemed with beaming images of social media starlet Qandeel Baloch, who was strangled by her own brother in an “honor killing.” Back in March, front pages all over the globe conveyed the devastating aftermath of the Easter Sunday terrorist attack at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore, where 74 people, including 29 children, were killed and over 300 injured.
On the same day, over ten thousand protestors had marched to Islamabad for a sit-in at Pakistan’s Parliament House to protest the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard-turned-assassin who had shot Punjab Governor Salman Taseer 27 times with an assault rifle. Though a Muslim himself, Taseer had dared to speak against the country’s notorious blasphemy laws on behalf of Asia Bibi, an illiterate berry harvester and Christian mother of five, who has been imprisoned since 2009 for allegedly insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad during a dispute with Muslim women over drinking water.
Less than two months after Taseer’s death in 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minorities Affairs and the only Christian Cabinet member, was slain in a car ambush by the Pakistani Taliban. Bhatti had also criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, under which hundreds of Christians and several Muslims have been prosecuted. Although a dozen death sentences have been handed down, no one has yet to be executed by the state. Nevertheless, since 1990, over 60 people charged with blasphemy have been murdered by vigilantes, including a Christian couple who were beaten and cast into a fiery brick kiln by a furious mob in November 2014, after burned pages of the Quran were supposedly discovered in their trash. The previous year, in March 2013, over 150 homes and two churches were vandalized and set ablaze in a Christian colony in Lahore after a local sanitation worker was accused of blasphemy.
Yet, violence against Christians sometimes comes even without precipitating allegations. Two high-profile cases include the March 2015 suicide bombings of two churches in Youhanabad, Lahore, which killed fifteen and injured over 70, and the 2013 bomb massacre at All Saints’ Church in Peshawar, which left 127 dead and over 250 wounded. The latter remains the deadliest attack against Christians since Pakistan’s founding.
Sadly, the shadow of extremism lurks behind even positive media attention. The only Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner, for instance, is girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai, who achieved international recognition at the age of fifteen after surviving a brutal Taliban assassination attempt. Furthermore, Pakistan’s only two Oscars were awarded to Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s 2012 and 2016 documentaries, Saving Face and A Girl in the River, which brought the chilling subjects of acid attacks and “honor killings” to the silver screen.
A Light in the Darkness
Gloria Calib is well-aware of Pakistan’s global reputation. As a Christian woman serving as Head of Outreach for the International Christian Fellowship Church at Forman Christian College (a chartered university), Gloria understands the realities facing Jesus’ followers in her home context. Earlier this year, nine people from her community died in the Easter park bombing.
Yet, there is no self-pity, blame, or fear in her voice when she speaks about her Muslim neighbors. Rather than fixating on the restrictions and threats against Pakistan’s vulnerable Christian minority, Gloria focuses on the Church’s vocation to shine as a light in the darkness (Phil. 2:16).
Although she grew up in a Christian community in Jhelum, near the capital of Islamabad, and attended a convent school, Gloria was the only Christian among forty girls in her class. “I had to go through a lot of discrimination in my earlier years. It had a negative effect on me and on my grades,” she confides. “At first, I did not know how to handle it. Then, I learned to pray about the situation. In middle school, by the grace of God, my situation had changed.”
During her high school and college years, Gloria developed friendships with several Muslim classmates. “Of course they were curious about a few things, like, ‘Why do you pray to Jesus as the Son of God?’” Gloria recalls. “So there was dialogue even from that time. I can tell there was some positive influence on them because of the way I was sharing biblical teachings. I had friends who would come to me and share their problems and even ask me to pray for them. I think that makes a difference.”
The Mission Engagement of Pakistani Churches
After graduating from college, Gloria contributed to Bible translation and interpretation work in Pakistan before God opened the door for her to pursue mission studies at Redcliffe College, Gloucestershire University in the UK. Later, Gloria would study Missiology at the London School of Theology, where she recently graduated with her PhD. ScholarLeaders supported Gloria for her advanced education and awarded her the Persevere Scholarship.
For her doctoral dissertation, Gloria explored a topic close to her heart: missions in Pakistan. “My objective was to evaluate the mission engagement of Pakistani churches in order to help them engage more effectively,” she says.
Working with churches from the Lahore and Hyderabad dioceses in the Church of Pakistan (a union of Anglican, Scottish Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Lutheran churches) and from the Full Gospel Assemblies (a Pentecostal denomination), Gloria investigated the churches’ theology of missions, actual missional practice, and perceived restrictions to mission engagement. Her field research involved 50 site visits, seven focus groups with 64 participants, 40 interviews, and over 500 surveys. Clergy and lay leaders, as well as congregation members, provided valuable feedback.
Of course, institutional injustices and cultural bias hinder Pakistani Christians as they carry out the Great Commission, but Gloria’s research reveals a far more complex picture.
Restrictions from Without and Within
First, Gloria found that Pakistani churches often lack a well-developed and consistent missiology to inform practice. “We do not find a lot of published material here on the theology of mission,” says Gloria. “Some were saying that most of our theology is borrowed from the West.”
Discrimination and the vicious cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and lack of educational opportunities contribute to the dearth of Christian scholarship. “There is not much theological reflection in the Pakistani Church and not much published,” says Gloria. “Some in the Christian community have not been educated. In general, education in Pakistan relies on rote memorization. It doesn’t develop critical thinking.”
“There is lots of need in Pakistan for research into how the Church should cope with its context because we are living in different times now and things that have worked in the past may not work now,” Gloria points out. “Also, what is working in the West or in other parts of the world may not work here. Pakistan is known as one of the most dangerous places on earth, so we have to be very innovative and discerning of both the times and the voice of God for specific situations and contexts.”
Regarding actual practice, Gloria found that churches were often stuck in defeatism and isolationism. “Christians are a minority here, the Church has a very restricted context, and our proclamation of the Gospel is very difficult, especially in these days,” Gloria concedes. “But the Lahore diocese has been here for 150 years, and has eight districts and several institutions. The Hyderabad diocese has 26 parishes. Similarly, the Full Gospel Assemblies have over 200 churches and several institutions. So the Church actually has a strong presence, I’d say, but are we engaging with the context?”
In some disturbing instances, churches were actually discouraging seekers out of suspicion over their motives, neglecting to follow up with new believers to avoid dealing with fallout from families and communities, and even discriminating against low-caste converts. “I can quote so many cases that people shared in my field research, how they were threatened when people were asking them questions about their beliefs and how they were thanking God when they were going away because they didn’t want to engage in conversation,” Gloria laments.
Perhaps most surprising were Gloria’s findings regarding perceived restrictions to missions. The top four perceived restrictions were fear of persecution, self-centeredness, internal politics, and lack of concern for others. “Churches are more concerned about their survival instead of the missionary obligation,” says Gloria.
“There are some pockets of [missional] engagement. There are some healthy signs,” she acknowledges, “but most churches don’t actually want to engage or don’t know how. They are happy within their church walls and with their own salvation, but are not actually moving out with compassion to reach out to the majority community.”
Seeing the Plank in Our Eyes
“My major finding was that most of the restrictions are coming from within the Church, rather than from outside,” Gloria emphasizes. “And I know this could be true for the rest of the churches in the world. The Church should be looking inside.”
“There is a need for healing and restoration within the Church,” she continues, “because there are cases of self-centeredness within congregations and within the leadership. There are cases of internal politics. Some people said that they are so busy dealing with [such matters] that they are perplexed regarding how to be creative and how to engage the wider context.”
In addition, there is a need for discipleship and leadership development to counter so-called “cultural Christianity.” “Although we have huge Christian communities, most of the Christianity is in the form of nominal Christianity,” Gloria maintains. “It’s because between 1850 and 1930, there were mass conversions. So many from a Hindu past came to Christianity, but the Church failed to disciple them.”
Gloria believes that all too often, people’s faith stays in their heads instead of sinking into their hearts. Information alone, however, does not lead to transformation. “The congregants may know the creeds very well, they may know Scripture very well,” she argues, “but if you talk about transformation, if you talk about Christlikeness, if you talk about a real change and about passion to actually reach out to other people, you don’t see that.”
Finally, there is a need for effective mission mobilization. “There are so many tools like the Perspectives and Kairos courses that can really help the Church to be awakened,” Gloria points out. The Pakistani Church, she believes, can do more. “There are about 390 unreached people groups within Pakistan, but there are thousands and thousands of churches. What if each church takes responsibility for one people group and starts praying for them, starts seeking ways to reach out to them, what do you think?” asks Gloria. “Would the Lord not respond? Would the Lord not give a strategy to reach them? Would He not open up eyes to how we can engage them?”
A Brief History of Christianity in Pakistan
“Christianity in Pakistan is very old, older than in many parts of Europe,” Gloria explains. “Tradition says that in the first century, Saint Thomas came to Taxila, which is in present-day Pakistan. There is also evidence that Bishop John of Persia signed the Nicene Creed on behalf of the Persian and Indian Church. At least until the eighth century, there were ancient Christian communities in Pakistan.”
However, Christian presence and influence dwindled drastically between the 11th and 16th centuries due to persecution, she says. The progressive King Akbar of the Mughal Empire invited Jesuits to his court in the 16th century and even built an interfaith center, but “modern-day Christianity is actually the product of the modern mission movement. Although the East India Company was not very favorable to those missions because they were not very keen that the local people should be evangelized,” missionaries like William Carey, the German Pietists, the Moravians, the Presbyterians, and other Protestant pioneers from Denmark, England, and the Netherlands spread the Gospel using a variety of approaches.
“Some were trying to fight social injustices or evil practices, like Sati [whereby widows were immolated on their deceased husbands’ funeral pyres] or the killing of newborn daughters,” says Gloria. Henry Martyn translated the Bible into Urdu and Persian. Evangelistic meetings reached multitudes with the Gospel. In addition, missionaries established hospitals, health clinics, orphanages, schools, and community centers. Forman Christian College, where Gloria works and ministers, was established by Presbyterians in 1864.
Although they had voted for the formation of Pakistan in 1947, the Christian minority remained neutral during the bitter Muslim and Hindu conflicts. In the first two decades, Christians enjoyed a relative degree of freedom in the new Muslim country. “There were different statesmen who had been educated in Christian institutions and who actually gave lots of respect to the Christian community for its role in education and medicine because there were Christians who were working with lepers and sufferers of different diseases that other people of faith would not like to work with,” Gloria explains. “There was appreciation for that kind of contribution.”
The hospitable sociopolitical climate would not last forever. “In the1950s and -60s, there was so much religious freedom that there were open debates between Muslim and Christian scholars about their faith,” says Gloria, “but the situation got worse in the 1970s because of Z.A. Bhutto, who tried to take Pakistan down the road of Islamization. Things became very difficult for the Christian community.” Many Christians consider the Bhutto years as “a dark era” because Christian schools, colleges, and hospitals were taken over by the government during the nationalization campaign at that time. “So just imagine that in the church compounds, the Christian children were now studying Islam!”
Although some Christian institutions, like Forman, were denationalized during the Musharraf regime (2001-2008), religious freedom became highly restricted following the 1986 passage of penal code 295C and its 1990 amendment, which mandates death for any verbal or written remark, visual representation, or innuendo that defiles the name of Muhammad.
“In one sense, Christians are living peaceful lives, especially those who have education and who are in good positions. They are living freely,” Gloria insists. “But when it comes to expressing the faith or proclaiming the Gospel, then you could be in serious trouble, especially Christians who are illiterate, who do not have much say, who are living on the margins of society. They can be victims at any time. So, you cannot say anything universal about Pakistani Christians and their relationship with the state. It depends very much on the status and background of the Christian.”
Missions amid Restrictions
Due to persecution, Christians have to be very creative and discerning in how they share their faith. The International Christian Fellowship Church at Lahore, where Gloria leads the outreach ministry and where her husband Asif serves as pastor, is an interdenominational church on a college campus. Due to its location and international identity, Gloria’s church welcomes people from all backgrounds.
“Some other churches may not be so open because there have been cases of fake conversions,” Gloria points out. Sometimes, churches are “reluctant to accept seekers or believers from other backgrounds because they can bring trouble. Their families do not allow their conversion, even to the extent of killing them.”
In the past, Christians could reach their communities through evangelistic meetings and healing crusades, but due to recent terrorist activities, the government has been discouraging large gatherings. Believers are now seeking new opportunities to share their faith through “friendship evangelism” and even social media.
For the past two years, Gloria has been teaching Kairos courses (five-day intensive seminars covering the theological, historical, strategic, and cultural dimensions of missions) at multiple churches in her region. Her husband Asif is the National Coordinator for the Kairos Course in Pakistan. Dozens have completed the training and are now actively exploring opportunities to share their faith in their workplaces and neighborhoods.
Gloria’s church has also adopted an unreached people group. Church members pray consistently for them and seek ways to reach them. Every week, the church also prays for different nations around the world. At parks and other public places, members distribute Christian literature and engage others in conversations. “Sometimes, we have very significant results through these encounters,” she smiles.
“We have come to realization that if we go out, we go alone, but if we mobilize the Church, then many will be going out,” says Gloria. “We can’t do mission work on our own. We need partnerships. Mission is not only the responsibility of the Outreach, Evangelism, and Mission Department, or of the pastor or leadership team, but of every one of us.”
Building Bridges over Stumbling Blocks
Muslims regard Jesus as a Prophet and the Bible as a sacred text, so they are usually open to hearing about Jesus or accepting Christian literature. However, significant stumbling blocks remain.
“We have been hearing since we were in school that the Bible has been changed,” says Gloria, “because the majority community reads their Scriptures in their original language, in Arabic. But we have so many translations in so many languages. That is a prevalent view, saying that the Bible is not true anymore.”
“Another obstacle that really blocks them from considering our faith is that we say Jesus is the Son of God,” Gloria explains. “It is really heretical to Muslims to say that.” Of course, fear of rejection and persecution from families and communities also prevent some Muslims from embracing Christianity openly or wholeheartedly.
“Even still, there are people who do pay attention when you share faith with them,” says Gloria. For instance, she recently had the opportunity to discuss her understanding of God with one of her children’s teachers, a devout Muslim who had lost her husband. “We don’t see God as a distant God,” Gloria had told her. “We see God as Father and we can come to Him when we are brokenhearted. Our Scriptures tell us that He can heal our hearts, and walk with us through our pain and suffering.”
“She was listening very carefully,” Gloria recalls. “Even when people have misconceptions, when you talk to people, especially those who are suffering, who are in pain, who are seeking the truth, they give you an ear.”
Open Hearts in a Closed Context
“The Pakistani Church is in the media all over the world as a persecuted Church,” says Gloria. “I’d say, look at the Pakistani Church from another perspective as well. We have some freedom. We are free to go to church. We are celebrating Christmas and Easter freely. We are free to practice our faith. The trouble arises when we try to reach out to other communities, but there are non-threatening ways to reach out. There are cases of terrorist attacks and persecution, but there is freedom as well.”
Gloria challenges Christians to reexamine what it means to be free. She also challenges believers to recognize that restrictions exist in many forms. “For example, I worked with the London City Mission in the restricted context of secularism,” she recalls. In Pakistan, people listen respectfully when they are approached for conversation and they accept Christian materials graciously. “When I was working with the London City Mission, people were not listening. They were not even looking at you. We were distributing tracts and they might take it, but right in front of your eyes, they throw it in the bin. So that was a different kind of restricted context. So I think that the Pakistani Church, in one sense, is much more free to express its faith.”
Yet, the Pakistani Church is still learning to identify and lean into the freedoms it does have. “One of the major problems is that if people are accepting Christ, the Church is not following them up,” says Gloria. “In my field research, a lot of people said they are threatened, so they are trying to alienate themselves even when people are coming to them and seeking Christ and actually wanting to know more about Him. The Church is not ready to answer them.”
There is also a need for repentance. “Many new Christians come from a sweeper background, Hindus that are coming to Christ in the South,” says Gloria, “but many in the Church are not ready to accept them because they discriminate against them.” (Sweepers are those who hold sanitation jobs, which are considered “unclean.” They are typically Chuhras, from low-caste Hindu backgrounds, and are considered “untouchable.”)
“Religious extremism is a major problem. Constitutional clauses, especially 295C, could be a problem,” Gloria concedes, “but the main problem is within the Church. Yes, our context is restricted, but if the Church would take little steps, we can have a very significant impact.”
Certainly, the Church in Pakistan faces formidable challenges unique to its context, but that very context also presents the Church with distinct opportunities and insight. “The opportunities the Pakistani Church has, no other church in the world has,” Gloria insists, “because the Church is present here.”
If you would like to learn more about Gloria’s research or ministry, please send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.