I felt the scorching heat of the sun on my face as I walked outside the airport in Muscat, Oman, and onto a Gulf Air jet parked in the middle of the runway. My next destination was Karachi, Pakistan, where I would catch a connecting flight to Lahore. I was traveling with a team of Christian attorneys from Jubilee Campaign, a human rights organization dedicated to helping the persecuted church, and we had classified our trip as a Ã¢â‚¬Å“fact-finding mission,Ã¢â‚¬Â as we set out to interview victims of religious persecution in Pakistan as well as visit churches that had been attacked by radical Muslims.
Confusion ruled on the flight to Karachi, as Pakistani expatriate workers heading home for the Muslim holiday of Eid pushed and shoved their way into seats. Stewardesses had to yell to command attention and use physical force to prompt obedience. When tea was served, some passengers attempted to steal the teacups and silverware, putting it away in their bags. Ã¢â‚¬Å“You there,Ã¢â‚¬Â one stewardess yelled, Ã¢â‚¬Å“you can`t take that! Give it back now.Ã¢â‚¬Â
A small battle was waged over the goods, but it was eventually won by the stewardess, who retrieved the coveted items and secured them in her cart. Battle-weary and thoroughly annoyed, she arrived at my seat. The sight of a lone, wide-eyed, white woman in her twenties in Western clothing must have startled her. She stared at me with an expression of bewilderment. Ã¢â‚¬Å“May I ask why on earth you are going to Karachi?Ã¢â‚¬Â she asked. I couldn`t think of a good reasonÃ¢â‚¬"at least not one to share with the two hundred Muslims on the plane with me. I smiled in return and fastened my seatbelt for the hour-long flight.
A DIFFERENT WORLD
Later, my mind wandered to the reasons I had signed up for this trip. The plight of Christians in Muslim countries had captured my heart some time ago. As director of Stand Today, an organization which advocates on behalf of persecuted believers, I had been frequently exposed to the stories of minority Christians in predominately Muslim countries.
But despite the fact that I`ve conducted research on the persecuted church, as well as numerous interviews with individuals from places like Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Ethiopia, and Iraq, I still believe that anyone traveling halfway around the world should come prepared to have his assertions challenged and his preconceived notions shattered. Inevitably, I told myself, there will be hundreds of scenarios that I one will be completely unprepared for, and numerous occasions where I will be compelled to think in a way that I have never thought before.
This was certainly the case. During the flight from Oman to Pakistan, I became, for the first significant time in my life, a minority. Nearly two hundred Pakistani Muslims filled the seats around me, a white American Christian girl. In that moment of realization, I began to get a very small sense of what it must be like to be a Christian in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Christians comprise a tiny part of Pakistan`s population of 165 million citizens. Marginalized and shoved to the sidelines of society, they struggle to survive in a nation that is 97 percent Muslim. The principal at a Christian seminary in Lahore told our team that persecution is not unusual. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We are used to it, we do not feel it,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
While some Christians of Pakistan have become, in some manner, accustomed to their plight, the sting of oppression is hardly a dull one. Upon arriving in Lahore, I had the opportunity to meet several individuals whose firsthand stories proved just how desperate their situation really is.
ONE COUPLEÃ¢â‚¬â„¢S STORY
He was rail-thin and serious. She was petite with a slight smile. I looked up as the two entered the office of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) in the middle of crowded Lahore. CLAAS is a Jubilee Campaign partner organization which works to defend and protect Christians in Pakistan. The woman, Malak*, carried their four-month-old baby, Malikah*, in her arms. I couldn`t believe how small the baby was. There was no fat on her little arms or legs, only skin thinly stretched across a tiny frame.
When Malak and her husband, Amir*, began to relate the story of love, rejection, danger, and tragedy that had led them to this place, the room grew quiet. Though they spoke through a translator, the pain of their experience haunted every word.
After getting married as Muslims, the couple converted to Christianity. Immediately they found themselves in danger from area Muslims who disapproved of their conversion. Malak gave birth to twins during this time, but one fell sick. Meanwhile, Amir was unable to find employment in order to support them. It was too dangerous to leave the house, and there was no money for medical expenses. In September, their baby died.
The couple sat together, holding their remaining child. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Now Malikah is sick,Ã¢â‚¬Â they told us. But this time, they hope the outcome will be different. CLAAS is able to help this couple pay for medical expenses for their baby through a fund established for victims of religious persecution. Our team gathered around the couple and prayed for baby Malikah. At the end of our time together, I saw a ray of hope on their faces. The victim`s fund is already helping to make this couple`s future a brighter one.
STANDING UP FOR THE HELPLESS
Not only does CLAAS endeavor to assist hurting and endangered Christian families, but they have a special focus on protecting those who are on trial for their faith in Christ in the courts of Pakistan. Many Christians in Pakistan are vulnerable to false accusations, as well as charges of Ã¢â‚¬Å“blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.Ã¢â‚¬Â Often these accusations are completely groundless. They were in the case of Ranjha Masih, a Christian man who has already spent eight and a half years in prison. After being tried on blasphemy charges in Lahore`s High Court, Ranjha Masih was sentenced to life in prison in April of 2003.
If it were not for the attorneys working with CLAAS, he would still be there today. But on November 10, only days after our team left Pakistan, Ranjha Masih`s life sentence was overturned in the Lahore High Court, thanks to the ongoing efforts of CLAAS.
VICTIMIZED FOR THEIR FAITH
The day that our team arrived in Pakistan, a group of Christians in a village outside of Lahore were attacked. One young man suffered severe injuries to his left eye after he went along with police to identify and bring to justice a group of Muslims who had attacked his local church. The culprits hid while the police visited their location, but then followed this young Christian man and beat him severely.
During our visit to the village, we were able to walk through the church. The roof was smashed in one area, while the interior had been completely trashed. Christians from the village talked to us, some of them sharing their stories of the horror of the previous attacks. Their problems began when a group of local Muslims decided to steal the land that the Christians were farming. Because of their status in Pakistani society, Christians are easily victimized. The attackers likely assumed that the land would be nabbed, and as the victims would be Christians, who would care?
Apparently someone did. When the mob of land grabbers charged the village with machetes and guns, tearing through the church and terrorizing women and children, one man, a Muslim neighbor, opened the gates of his home to protect them. The Christians fled to his property and were protected by his armed guards.
This act of kindness has strengthened relationships between Christians and Muslims in the village. While the church is still in disarray and many of the wounded are still recovering, there is a sense of hope and courage that could be found on the faces of the men and women we met.
GOING TO CHURCH IN PAKISTAN
Sunday, our final day in Lahore, dawned as one of the brightest days I had seen while there. I watched eagerly for rays of sunlight piercing the fog of pollution as our van careened through the city streets. Curtains covered the van windows for security, but the glimpses I caught of the world outside were unforgettable: children running through the streets, beggars approaching the vehicle with hands opened, men getting their hair cut on the side of the road while donkeys, rickshaws, camels, and cars jammed the roadway.
In forty minutes we had arrived at our destination: the Full-Gospel Church in Lahore. Emerging from our vehicle, we headed down a narrow alley. The sound of hundreds of voices raised in song filled the air as we walked past armed guards with machine guns and into the entrance of the church. Not a single chair could be found in the sanctuary, save the ones reserved for our team on the podium. Women and men, seated on separate sides of the aisle, sat cross-legged or kneeling on the concrete. Children ran between parents, at times settling for a few minutes before getting up again.
Standing on the podium, I looked out over the hundreds of Christians before me, taking in the sight of so many impassioned believers. I shut my eyes and heard the chorus of voices fill the room with a power one can hardly describe. Though marginalized, excluded, hunted, and abused in their country, their voices rang with the knowledge that they are not alone.
Our days in Pakistan had been filled with depth, drama, and deep emotion. There were so many faces to remember, so many tragedies that I had seen, so much that would be ingrained in my mind forever. I remembered Safa*, a Christian woman who was on trial for charges of blasphemy. She was taken from her family and thrown in prison for forty-five days and nights. The women in her prison tried to pressure her to convert to Islam, but she refused. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am waiting for my Christian brothers and sisters,Ã¢â‚¬Â she told them. Ã¢â‚¬Å“They are going to come and help me. I have faith in them.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Her words have not left me to this day. They remain a challenge, a personal call for help from that vast network of individuals that we call Ã¢â‚¬Å“the persecuted church.Ã¢â‚¬Â May we never forget them.
JESUS IN LAHORE
I was looking for Christ in Lahore. And I found Him, alive and working in the lives of victims who had suffered for His name, in the faces of children who rejoiced in His love, and in the countless believers I saw worshipping at a church guarded by men with machine guns. In a village where Muslims had attacked and beaten local Christians, leaving their church building damaged and in disarray, I witnessed the believers` Christ-like spirit of forgiveness and courage. Their example reminded me that as Christians, we are the Church. No building can contain or define us.
In Pakistan and around the world, persecuted or free, we stand as the body of Christ. As I walked through the damaged ruins of what was once a strong and sturdy place of worship, I heard again the words of Christ in Matthew 16:18: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I will build My church,Ã¢â‚¬Â He said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Kristin Wright is founder and director of Stand Today, a nonprofit advocacy organization working on behalf of the persecuted church worldwide. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Names have been changed for protection.