Although Christian minorities face daily persecution in Pakistan, “a lot of good things are happening there. There is great faith and hope” and it is very important to think about, pray for, visit them and bear witness to their lives, according to the Rev. Khushnud Azariah.
Azariah, vicar of St. George’s Church in Riverside and the first female Pakistani to be ordained a priest, has a few huge hopes of her own; essentially, that collaborative partnerships and exchanges may emerge from a March 12 – 18 trip she and other members of the diocesan Program Group on Global Partnership recently took to her birthplace, Lahore.
The group said they visited Pakistan in response to the church’s call to attempt partnerships and peace-building in areas where Christians are minorities.
That call came last year, in the form of General Convention Resolution D035, which originated in the Diocese of Los Angeles. It charged the Episcopal Church to support and “to learn about the realities of the Church in Pakistan and the oppression of religious minorities in that country.”
On June 26, 2015, Church of Pakistan Presiding Bishop Samuel Azariah of the Diocese of Raiwind, who is married to Khushnud Azariah, had told General Convention’s Legislative Committee on World Mission that religious extremists target Christian minorities in Pakistan for having different beliefs and affiliations.
The Pakistani Christian community, which comprises about 1.5 percent of the nation’s 180 million people, is subjected to daily persecution. They are also targeted by Pakistani blasphemy laws that carry sentences of life imprisonment or the death penalty for what are deemed offenses against the Holy Quran or the Prophet Muhammad.
Yet Pakistani Christians are steadfast in the faith, Bishop Azariah said.
Khushnud Azariah and other members of the diocesan global partnership group felt an urgency to visit Pakistan’s churches to show solidarity with Christians, and to build bridges, she said. Their trip coincided with an ecumenical partners conference hosted by the Church of Pakistan, a union of Anglican, Lutheran, United Methodist and Scottish Presbyterian denominations.
A next step: engagement
“We viewed this trip as the second in a series of steps that embody our relationship of accompaniment with the people of Pakistan, the Christians of Pakistan,” said Troy Elder, Bishop J. Jon Bruno’s legate for global partnership. “The first step was the passage of General Convention Resolution D035.”
Others, like the Rev. Pat O’Reilly, priest-in-charge of St. George’s Church, Hawthorne, and the Rev. Julie Bryant, rector of Church of the Transfiguration, Arcadia, said they hoped to understand more fully the local context. Although Christian Kassoff of St. Wilfrid of York Church, Huntington Beach, “was at General Convention and was rooting for the resolution’s passage and was honored to be part of the first delegation” from Los Angeles, still he said he felt some initial trepidation about the visit.
“The only news you hear from Pakistan is bad news and yet I had a feeling in my gut that … people are the same wherever,” said Kassoff, a diocesan coordinator for Episcopal Relief and Development. “They just want to live peacefully. They want to work, to have their kids go to school, and to eat and have their needs met, and what’s going on between governments is not always representative of what’s going on in their countries.”
Robert Bland, a member of St. Patrick’s, Thousand Oaks, and the Rev. Richard Estrada, who attends the Church of the Epiphany in East Los Angeles, were curious about the experience of being a minority in a context other than the United States. “It seems to be a universality that minorities are treated in certain ways, regardless of who that minority is and in what context,” Bland said.
“It forces me to look at what goes on in this country and particularly in terms of our relationship with the Muslim minority here in this country and what ways that resembles the way the Christian minority is treated in Pakistan,” he added.
With Azariah’s presence in the diocese and her husband the primate of the Pakistani church, Elder said, “we viewed that as a global partnership in our backyard that has the promise of doing something more.”
Azariah hopes the trip encourages the Los Angeles diocese to engage in a study to begin to understand the country’s history, to hear and share the stories of its people, and to explore partnership opportunities.
“Pakistan is still a place where people can go and safely return, as we returned.” But, she added, “We cannot always be thinking about our own safety and security, if you really want to be a partner.”
Defending the faith: freedom to worship
One of many powerful moments throughout the trip occurred when the group encountered the family of a martyred 16-year-old, named Akash, who died March 15, 2015 while preventing a suicide bomber from entering the courtyard of a Christian church in Youhanabad, the largest Christian area in Lahore. At least 15 people, including two police officers, died in the attack; dozens were wounded. A militant Islamist group claimed responsibility.
The Los Angeles group visited Youhanabad on the anniversary of that incident. “There were big posters of all those who were martyred … a memorial wall, and people gathered there lighting candles,” Azariah said.
What occurred next was repeated frequently throughout the trip, the delegation said. Local residents engaged the Angelenos, the “obvious foreigners … they approached us and started talking to us about what happened,” she said.
The Los Angeles group was invited into Akash’s family’s home, where his father offered tea and biscuits and described an overwhelming grief that eventually gave way to peacefulness surrounding their only son’s sacrifice.
“He said, ‘The moment Jesus entered into our hearts, our fears and grief ended and we realized that my son died so that we all in this colony can live with freedom to worship, to live with dignity. He gave his life so that others could live,’” Azariah recalled.
“These are the people, the hope of the church and the challenges to keep moving in faith,” she added. “They helped us to see that even when people are persecuted, they can be formed in a passion to live to serve others, to love others.”
Estrada agreed. “I remember this young kid who died protecting the church. Young people, especially the males, volunteer to protect the churches because they know what can happen. I was really impressed with that. You don’t see graffiti on the walls, you see a mural of those who have lost their life because they’ve protected the church.”
For Bland, the epitome of the visit was the warm welcome the group received from young Akash’s family. “They discussed with us his life and what it meant and their sorrow and his loss and they just opened their hearts to us, who were strangers to them.”
Pilgrimage towards reconciliation
Also coinciding with the group’s visit was an international conference hosted by the Church of Pakistan in Lahore, themed “Pilgrimage of Life Towards Reconciliation.”
The conference brought together representatives from the eight dioceses in Pakistan, and two minority populations: Muslims from Norway, and Christians from Pakistan, for peace-building, reconciliation and experience-sharing. It evoked the question of responsibility toward the Christians’ neighbors, Azariah said. And while dealing with a Muslim majority may be tricky and even difficult at times, she said, “the church is called to love your neighbor. And who my neighbor is, in the context of Pakistan, is Muslims.”
“The church is now trying to find ways to reach out to Muslims who are moderate and who also want to speak up for the rights of everyone,” she said.
“My husband challenged Muslims and people of other faiths that as the church is opening its doors for all of us to worship in God’s house, it is very important for people of other faiths to open their religious houses for others to come,” said Azariah.
While in the country, the Los Angeles delegation spoke with Muslim clerics and the church’s partners, visited diocesan ministries and also celebrated the 25th anniversary of Dar-ul-Mussarat, a chain of special education centers for children with mental disabilities, founded by Khushnud Azariah.
O’Reilly said she was very impressed with the diocese’s relationships with the majority Muslim population. “We were able to sit down with six mullahs or imams, and they came to meet with us out of their profound respect for Bishop Azariah.”
Transfiguration Church’s Julie Bryant said the opportunity to connect with the Church of Pakistan’s international partners, such as the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in the Church of England and the Scottish Presbyterian and Scandinavian churches “who have been working in different ways to refine and to make ministry more effective and more transparent” will help focus an emerging model for effective ministry with the church in Pakistan.
“At times, our presence clearly as strangers and clearly as outsiders seemed to bring a curiosity and a joy and an awareness that the world was watching some of what was happening in Pakistan,” she said.
“We were so welcomed by everyone in Pakistan, and thanked for being there,” O’Reilly said. “People were delighted to have us there in a way I have never been received in any country. It was kind of overwhelming that they were so thankful that we would be there as witnesses, just to appreciate them, to love their culture, and that part of it was wonderful.”
Elder agreed. “The sense of isolation that Pakistanis seem to have, with respect to the rest of the world, was palpable. They don’t see Westerners, and since Sept. 11 they have felt so marginalized. I returned with a profound sense of what it means to be persecuted religiously—the term is used so casually and facetiously by those in this country who have no idea what it means.”
‘Be the change’
The group attended the March 16 “Be the Change” seminar organized by Diocese of Raiwind peace-building ministries, focused on such marginalized populations as women and people with disabilities. For the first time in the history of the Church in Pakistan a transgender woman was invited to address the public from a church platform.
“If we really want to be an inclusive community, talking about the pilgrimage of reconciliation, we cannot ignore any segment of the community,” said Azariah.
For example, she said, “the whole issue of women’s ordination came up; that the church, on the one hand, is talking about members who are being victimized, not given their due rights. And on the other hand, the church itself is victimizing women and not giving them full rights to the role as priests or however they want to use their gifts and talents.”
To that end, “my husband [Presiding Bishop Samuel Azariah] is looking for a priest. He has an English-speaking congregation and he mentioned that it would be so nice if someone from Europe or America could send a woman priest,” she said. “He wants a woman to be a priest of that church so people get used to seeing her, and then will accept their own women in that role.”
Bryant said the group visited a clinic in an outlying area, and several women’s empowerment ministries that offer job training and other opportunities for self-improvement.
“It was interesting for me, as a woman who experiences what I understand to be limits on my life in the United States, to see that by comparison I have it pretty darn good,” she said. “And to see that my tolerance was strained by the limits on women in that society even in just a few days.”
O’Reilly said some of the training programs “were for girls who didn’t get grades to go to higher education. They had no marketable skill and a much lower rate of being able to marry well. Otherwise they would probably be without employment and a burden to their family, and probably treated poorly and more likely to enter the sex trade.”
A visit to a brick kiln factory was reminiscent of the sharecropping days of the Southern United States, the group said. The “poorest of the poor” work in such places, and are usually Christians and earn very little pay, Azariah said. “The owners will give them a loan and they are never able to pay it back. From generation to generation they live in that situation, with no proper education for themselves or their children, in horrible conditions. They die in that.”
That visit profoundly affected O’Reilly, who said, “I never really thought about how Jesus was so inclusive, but here it was, concretely demonstrated, that while other groups may look down on this socioeconomic group, they were embraced by the Christian church.”
Kassoff said that although the church faces tremendous challenges, he felt a sense of hope from Christian youth in the Diocese of Raiwind..
“They have an amazing staff of 20-somethings working at the diocese, so full of life and energy,” he said, adding that in deeper conversations they described ongoing friendly relationships with their Muslim counterparts.
They put on an amazing program, with “cultural shows, music and songs, spreading a message of peace, living in harmony, loving your neighbor,” Azariah told The Episcopal News.
She hopes it is a message others in the Diocese of Los Angeles will be able to experience and share; especially if those, like herself, “who come here from other places” can become bridge builders to facilitate assistance and partnership relationships with those in their countries of origin.
“Our diocese can enter into a partnership with Pakistan for education, eradicating poverty and intolerance,” she said. “We need to pray and think creatively how we can move forward. A lot of good things are happening. There is hope there. We have to keep igniting that here and encourage folks in difficult situations to keep hope alive.”