ISLAMABAD: One week before Christmas, more than 400 people were crowded into a worship service at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in the southwestern city of Quetta when two suicide bombers attacked. Chaos erupted. Screaming children in white robes fled, escorted by police with assault rifles. Nine people died in the December 17 bombing, and at least 57 were injured.
Yet after a week of funerals, protests, official condemnation and alarmist editorials about the growing persecution of religious minorities, the Christmas spirit seemed to shine with unusual brightness in this Islamic republic of 207 million — about 3 million of whom are Christian.
The collective rebuke was palpable. Across Pakistan, church volunteers got busy decorating trees and placing wreaths on pews, some posing for TV news cameras. Urban bazaars that had been lit up December 1 to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) glowed with Christmas lights, illuminating displays of plastic fir trees and tinsel imported from China.
Politicians attended traditional Christmas cake-cutting ceremonies Saturday, condemning the Quetta attack and noting the important role that Christian-run hospitals and schools have played in the nation’s development. Police were deployed to guard historic cathedrals in Karachi and Lahore. More than 500 Christian prisoners were given a sentence reduction in time to go home for the holiday.
But nowhere was the feeling of undaunted joy more evident than in a ramshackle maze of alleys in the capital known as One Hundred Quarters. It is one of the informal urban “Christian colonies” where many Pakistani Christians of modest means live and work — along alleys, beneath pigeon coops and amid yards piled with scavenged tin, glass and plastic to be sorted and resold by the kilo.
Everyone in the little community was acutely aware of what had happened in Quetta. The bombing, claimed by the Islamic State, was the latest deadly attack on Christian targets — a pattern that has emerged with the rise of violent Islamist extremism, sectarian militancy and organised fervour over anti-Muslim blasphemy.
On Easter Sunday in 2016, Taliban suicide bombers killed 72 people and wounded more than 300 at a park in Lahore. In September 2013, a suicide attack at All Saints Church in Peshawar, also claimed by the Taliban, left 80 people dead. In March 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and federal minister for religious minority affairs, was assassinated by gunmen outside his home in the capital.
“Targeting minorities is strictly forbidden in Islam. Those involved in it want to create bad blood among different religions and sects. It will be disastrous for all of us if extremism is not done away with,” said Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, chairman of the Pakistan Minorities Alliance. “But the authorities are doing nothing to curb this hatred. Today, no church or temple is safe.”
But One Hundred Quarters was humming with excitement and purpose all weekend, and everyone seemed too busy to worry. Men and boys worked covering poles with straw to create life-size reproductions of the manger in Bethlehem and a fantasy topiary of straw stars, thrones and fir trees. Others painted wall scenes of Santa’s sleigh and reindeer.
“There is no meaning to Christmas without the manger,” said Sharoon Massih, 17, who was stringing lights on trees. “We celebrate Eid with the same fervor as Muslims, and we welcome everyone to celebrate Christmas with us. Those who want Christianity to be eliminated in Pakistan will never succeed. We are many, and God is with us.”
In an alley, Timotheus Gil, 25, had set up a Christmas emporium with tiny plastic trees and cheap ornaments. He was also selling stacks of old Christmas cards for 10 cents apiece showing scenes of baby Jesus in a basket of straw.
Around the corner was a small brick church painted bright pink, with a plaque saying it had been donated by the Salvation Army in 2014 “to the glory of God and to serve the people of 100 Quarters.” At the top of a narrow stone stairway was a room with a smaller plaque designating it an “All-Nations Mission Church.” Inside was a wooden cross and a stack of tattered Bibles wrapped in newsprint.
“Our message this Christmas is tolerance,” George Inayat, the gray-haired pastor of the tiny Protestant church, told The Washington Post. “No one can stop terrorists if they are determined to die, but we can pray that God will guide them on the right path. All this hatred and intolerance are giving Pakistan a bad name, but we must keep sending out a message of peace and brotherhood to all.”
Inayat said community leaders had met with local police officials after the Quetta bombing and that they had promised to provide extra security during the holiday festivities there.
After night fell on Christmas Eve, the run-down community was transformed into a wonderland, with twinkling lights and Nativity tableaux at every turn. A dusty parking lot had become a fairy-tale display of reindeer and electric candles, leading to a creche where parents led in their small children and knelt on the straw, pointing out the figures in a delicate Nativity painting.
Suhail Akhtar Bhatti, 48, an architectural draftsman, surveyed the scene with satisfaction. He and several other residents of One Hundred Quarters started the manger tradition 22 years ago. He said the straw came from fruit-packing crates, the lights were rented, and the leafy green border hedges had been cut from plants in the nearby Margalla Hills.
Shortly before 10 pm, a lilting carol in Urdu wafted from a church loudspeaker, beckoning worshipers to Christmas Eve services. A few Muslims joined the stream of visitors, both to pay their respects and out of curiosity about Christmas. Bhatti greeted each one, explaining about the birth of Jesus and the meaning of the pageant.
“This is our milad, just like the milad for the prophet,” he told one man, referring to the recent birthday celebration for Muhammad. “Jesus was simple; he was born in a manger with the animals, so that is what we present here.” The man shook his hand and thanked him.
“You are most welcome anytime,” Bhatti said.