Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali on the Needs of Pakistan’s Christian Minority
By RICK PLASTERER
Aug. 9, 2019
The former Anglican Bishop of Rochester, England, and of Raiwind, Pakistan, Michael Nazir-Ali, discussed attitudes toward the Christian faith in Pakistan in a presentation to the Christian media ministry PAK7 (pak7.org) on July 19 in Washington, D.C. This was the last day of the Department of State Ministerial on Religious Freedom. Nazir-Ali, who also serves as Director of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy, and Dialogue, and Visiting Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, is chairman of PAK7's International Council. A member of the PAK7 board noted in the beginning that the American government has designated Pakistan a “country of particular concern” with respect to religious freedom. A point that was made at the ministerial, she said, was the need to change the perceptions of religious minorities in many countries. PAK7 endeavors to do that for Christians in Pakistan. She said that we learn well through stories. PAK7 will attempt to teach about Christianity by communicating “the greatest story ever told … as creatively as possible.” Mike Underhill, the chairman of the U.S. Board of PAK7 said that the organization will attempt to communicate to Pakistan via television programing that is “fun to watch.”
Bishop Nazir-Ali, who was born and ministered in Pakistan, said that the story of Christianity in South Asia began “very early,” and “quite likely” with the apostle Thomas. Later, the Jesuits established “dialogue with the Mogul emperors, who were at that time sympathetic” toward Christians. “The Moguls employed many thousands of Christians” in their army and civil service. There were even two Mogul princes who “became Christian and were baptized.” This resulted in a reaction against Christianity, and the mission initiated by the Jesuits did not survive in Lahore, although there are archaeological remains and a 16th century church. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries missionaries from England arrived, and “through education, through medical work” were able to reach out to Muslims and high caste Hindus. These converts first began theological writing in India. But it was only “later in the nineteenth century” that “mass movements” into Christianity began. These were people from “lower caste backgrounds,” similar to a large section of the subcontinent’s population.
In the twentieth century, the “All-India Christian Association made an alliance with the Muslim League.” This was very important for political developments related to Indian independence. The Lahore Resolution (1940) asked for a separate homeland for Muslims in India. Christians supported this, provided that they were accorded equal treatment in the new nation. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali-Jinnah, enthusiastically guaranteed such treatment. Christians also supported “the inclusion of the whole of the Punjab” in Pakistan, which did not happen. In the vote which precipitated the inclusion of west Punjab in Pakistan, there was a tie, but there were “three Christian votes that broke the tie,” Nazir-Ali noted. It was only this vote “that made Pakistan a viable nation, at all.” A Christian also vetoed a proposal for joint national assembly for Pakistan and India, thus allowing a national assembly for Pakistan to come into existence. In giving evidence to the Boundary Commission, Christians asked to be included in the new nation of Pakistan.
Nazir-Ali noted that in the first speech of Ali-Jinnah to the constituent assembly of Pakistan, he said that “Pakistan is not a theocracy, or anything like it.” The next day he said that people in Pakistan were free to go to their chosen houses of worship, and, in Nazir-Ali’s words, one’s religion “had nothing to do with the state.” He pointed out that in Pakistan’s flag, the green portion of the flag stands for the Muslim population, and the white bar stands for Pakistan’s religious minorities. The white bar is wide to indicate future minorities that would join the country. This is a markedly different vision for the country than exists today. “The early promise has not been kept,” Nazir-Ali said. There are “various reasons” for this he said, among them “unthinking chauvinistic nationalism.” Christian institutions in Pakistan were “nationalized because of particular kind of nationalistic, socialistic ideology.” However, “the advent of Islamism” is also a major reason why the early inclination towards pluralism has been turned back. Islamism has had serious consequences “for the survival of the Christian community” in Pakistan. It has “created an atmosphere that is hostile.”
This hostility has several aspects. One is “legal discrimination.” He said that the law “explicitly discriminates” against Christians “in giving evidence to courts.” Also a serious problem is the blasphemy law. It was initially claimed that it had nothing to do with Christians, but instead was directed against the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect. But Nazir-Ali himself replied at the time that “whoever it is directed against,” it would cause problems, and has in fact caused problems for Christians. Islamism also has led to “increasing, widespread social discrimination.” He said that the Asia Bibi case “began with an incident of social discrimination.” The case encouraged “a mob mentality.” Attacks on Christian homes, churches and property have all involved “the incitement of a mob.” This is contributed to by teaching found in Pakistani textbooks, “social studies, history” and other various information sources in Pakistan.
The result of this has been significant Christian emigration from Pakistan. Karachi was once a very cosmopolitan city, like Dubai is today. He said that the nationalization of Christian institutions and Christian emigration “have meant the decimation” of the Christian middle class. Meanwhile, “those who couldn’t leave had no door open to them.” The result has been “ghettoization.” These ghettos “are themselves subject to deprivation and lack of attention.” Expressing the gospel “is becoming more and more difficult, largely because of the mentality of the majority,” but also because of the mentality engendered in minorities.
Nevertheless, “we continue to have a Christian population that is significant.” Nazir-Ali believes that official estimates undercount the number of Christians. Many have “no regular pastoral care,” as he said that he found to be true himself during the time he was in Pakistan. The work of PAK7 has to be put in the context of “hopeful beginnings” and dealing with “marginalization and persecution,” as well as dealing with a Christian population decimated by emigration of the middle class and “large scale ghettoization.” Many Christians in Pakistan need to mature in their faith, and existing support for them is inadequate. How can the “gospel best be communicated, in this time of increasing restriction,” he asked. He noted that “we are living in a digital age, an age of fast communications.” This makes it difficult “even for totalitarian governments to control information.” This means that there is a good “opportunity to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the people of Pakistan.” This can now be done “in ways that are easily accessible,” due to modern technology. Not uncommonly, it is not “doing things for people, but helping people to do the things themselves.” Pakistani Christians may need to be trained “to use all the advantages of technology.” Some of this can be delivered locally but needs enabling. He said that the task is not just bringing people to faith, but enabling them to “continue their journey, so that they become mature.”
Nazir-Ali said that while PAK7 is focused on Pakistan, it may be a project for an audience “wider than that.” But for Christians in Pakistan, decimated and beleaguered by the currents of Islamism, and many needing support in the faith where it may not be readily available from churches, modern telecommunication offers new abilities to convey the Christian gospel and enrich and strengthen their faith.