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Christmas under the shadow of terrorism in Pakistan

Celebrating the birth of baby Jesus is one liberty we enjoy amid limited religious freedoms, a Caritas official says
Quetta Christians observing the anniversary of the suicide attack at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, Balochistan province

Quetta Christians observing the anniversary of the suicide attack at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, Balochistan province. (Photo courtesy of Bethel Memorial Methodist Church Quetta)

Published: December 19, 2022 11:11 AM GMT
Updated: December 20, 2022 03:47 AM GMT

Children at the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta have rehearsed well for a traditional Christmas play they were forced to abandon by a terror attack five years ago.

The mayhem caused by two suicide bombers at the church in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province in 2017 is still fresh in the minds of the survivors.

“My eldest daughter was acting as Mary and the son was playing an angel. The terrorists jumped over the church gate, killing nine people and wounding 57. The costumes of some of their friends were stained with blood,” recalls Pastor Simon Bashir.

The nativity play was never held thereafter due to the looming fear of terrorism and then the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, Pastor Bashir encouraged his three children to participate along with their friends, some of whom belong to families of the victims.

The kids performed the nativity play at the jam-packed church on Dec. 11.

“Their spirits were high thanks to the Sunday school training. Even those injured sang jingles. We are not afraid of terrorists,” Bashir to UCA News.    

The Methodist Church has dedicated the fourth Sunday of Advent to the martyrs.

Every year the worshipers place garlands and candles in front of a banner emblazoned with photos of the victims to mark the anniversary of the 2017 terror attack.

“The blood of the martyrs is the seat of the church,” the banner states.

A thousand parishioners have been invited for the Dec. 18 feast at the Methodist church decorated with a large star and light strings.

The gathering is guarded by 10 troopers from the paramilitary, Frontier Corps, who are housed at a makeshift barrack at the gates of the church.

For decades, the region bordering Iran and Afghanistan has served as a battleground for terrorists, a separatist insurgency, and heavy-handed military operations. Deaths from shootings and bombings are routine affairs.

In 2018, six Christians fell victim to targeted killings in Quetta, and this year in August, an elderly Catholic Wilson Masih died while three teenagers were left injured when motorcycle-borne gunmen attacked a Christian colony in the Mastung area of the Balochistan province.

Masih was the elder brother of the Late Hendry Masih, a parliamentarian from Balochistan who was killed by his bodyguard in Quetta in 2014.

On Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, a local died and seven others were injured when an improvised explosive device went off outside a shopping mall in Balochistan’s Awaran district.

The Quetta mission currently has some 30,000 Catholics, forming 0.4 percent of its 7.2 million mostly Muslim people. They are served by 15 priests, almost all of them Punjabi.

Despite challenges, most of the Christians have decorated their homes with the juniper trees that are native to Balochistan even as their leaders are busy meeting senior police officers to discuss the security arrangements.

In Rawalpindi, neighboring Islamabad, about 3,000 police personnel including Elite Force commandos will be deployed to ensure the foolproof security of some 300 Churches.

The security of the churches will be monitored through closed-circuit television cameras, sharpshooters will be deployed on the rooftops of different buildings, walk-through gates will be established at entry points of all Churches on the eve of Christmas and vehicles will be parked 100 feet away from the current parking spaces of the churches.

At some churches like the Holy Rosary Pro-Cathedral Church located in the secured Quetta Army Cantonment area, there is little to worry about.

But in the northwestern district of Harnai, security concerns persist though there is no church.  

A 16 feet tall star shines on the home of Waseem Sadique, the only Catholic among 14 Christian families in the valley.

The priest from St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Loralai, about three hours' drive from Harnai, visits the family every two months to conduct mass.

“He visited us earlier this month. I am not sure he will be here for Christmas. The roads are damaged due to recent floods,” Sadique, a motorcycle mechanic, said.

The father of three, who plays the tabla (a pair of small traditional drums), plans to lead the midnight prayer followed by cake cutting on Christmas day.

Sharafat Sharif, executive secretary of Caritas in Quetta, also plans to spend Christmas in his hometown in the province's Sibi district.

His family prepares the famous Rosh or salted meat, a traditional recipe of Balochistan and Peshawar baked in steam, and the local delicacy called Balochi Khada kababs after the midnight Mass.

“Local Balochis love to gossip as they gather for late-night Christmas carol parties. We may be vulnerable due to the threat of non-state actors in border areas but the festivities are held like the rest of the country. Celebrating the birth of baby Jesus is one of the liberties we enjoy amid limited religious freedoms,” he said.

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