Congregation remains faithful despite security threat
Peshawar church benefits from Islamic disguise
All Saints Church in Peshawar
Almost every evening, the five security guards at Peshawar’s All Saints Church have to stop confused Muslims from entering the premises during the call to prayer.
“However, they are usually from other cities since local Muslims know it’s a Church,” said Ikhtiar Khan, one of the guards.
Biblical verses inscribed on the doorway in Persian and Pashto are the only hints at the church’s entrance that this is a Christian place of worship.
The building features Islamic-style white minarets and a dome as well as a wooden pulpit raised two feet above the congregation, a feature also found in Pakistani mosques.
When 13 Christians installed a black cross on top of the building after it was completed under British colonial rule in 1883 they were shot and killed by angry Muslims living in the area, a threat which prompted the building to be disguised as a mosque in the first place.
“The cross still bears a bullet hole,” said Pastor Ejaz Gill.
In many ways, the incident set a precedent for the risks associated with attendance at All Saints Church nowadays.
The only Christian place of worship in Pakistan built like a mosque, it lies on the border with war-torn Afghanistan in an area that has seen years of violence amid an insurgency by the Taliban.
“Peshawar was part of Afghanistan at that time [when it was built] and the fundamentalism here was the same, just like nowadays,” said Bishop Humphrey Peters of Peshawar diocese.
Four years ago, his predecessor demanded a police presence outside the church as the security situation continued to deteriorate.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which Peshawar is the capital, has seen the number of bomb blasts attributed to the Taliban rise from 137 in 2010 to 198 in 2011, according to official figures, while more than 11,000 people have died in the province from violence associated with the Afghan insurgency since 2005.
Wire gauze is spread across a newly built 10-foot high wall around the All Saints Church, which is located in a bustling area of the city dominated by shoe shops and cloth merchants.
Only the main gate where Khan works is open to vehicles in a bid to tighten security. He says he has attended the funerals of four colleagues killed by the Taliban since he started working for the police in Peshawar five years ago.
Thus far the church has not been directly targeted, said Pastor Gill.
“Still, the fear of terrorism grows during bigger gatherings and parishioners usually enter through a back door,” he says, adding that attendance has remained stable despite the security threat.
Only one parishioner has died from terrorist attacks in the city, he added.
Azeem Stephen, a young parishioner whose father is part of the church’s choir, said he was lucky to escape a minor blast in 2010 after a rickshaw exploded just seconds after he passed it.
Despite the apparent security threat, he has no plans to stop attending services, he says.
“We feel safe once we enter church premises.”