Bishop Mano Rumalshah, the Coordinator for the Church of Pakistan, reflects on last month’s terror attack on Bethel Church in Quetta.
Quetta, the beloved city, the capital of the Province of Balochistan, where the ghastly act of attack at a worshipping community at Bethel Church took place on Sunday 17 December 2017. Quetta has a population of 2 million+ with about fifty thousand Christians. The Province of Balochistan is the largest Province of Pakistan area wise, but smallest in population, inhabited mainly by the ancient Baluch tribe. It borders both with Afghanistan in the north and with Iran in the west.
As for the Bethel Church, it was founded in the mid-19th Century by the Methodists, but the present building was constructed in 1959. Today it is part of the Church of Pakistan (united) and under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Karachi. The other major church in the city is Saint Mary’s, which has an Anglican foundation and was the seat of the senior most army chaplain during the British raj. In addition there is also an equally large presence of the Roman Catholic Church with its own resident Bishop and some free Churches. Most of the Christian community in this area are of Punjabi origin and ethnicity and have been settled here almost since the middle of the 19th century. Their ministry over the years to the wider community has been mainly through education and health care services.
On the fateful day of Sunday 17 December, the service at Bethel Church started at 11 am with a special focus on the children and youth for which almost 400 people were gathered. At about mid-day two attackers found their way to enter the church premises, while doing so they were confronted by a brave young Christian gate keeper named Sultan who valiantly fought them and in the process laid down his own life. Once inside the church compound the gun fires started blazing between them and the few policemen who were already there. This exchange went on for about 40 minutes or so. In the process one of the attackers was killed. As this exchange was going on bullets were also breaking through the church windows and naturally people inside were being hurt with the broken glass. Finally, when the second attacker realised that he can neither enter the church building nor escape from the place, he blew himself up with his suicide jacket, embracing the huge door on the left arm of the nave (northern side). It blew open this massive door and the shrapnel and glass scattering all over killing and wounding people. The death toll was nine, with about forty people injured, of whom about twenty or so are still in the hospitals, some of whom are still in serious condition and others are gradually recovering.
The Bishop of Karachi, Sadiq Daniel, flew in at the earliest to be with his people and so did the President Bishop, Humphrey Peters, and other bishops including the church leaders of the Church of Pakistan. In addition many other Christian political leaders and community well-wishers also joined in with their moral and physical support for the victims. Bishop Sadiq also held meetings with the government officials and community leaders, but even more importantly held a massive Memorial and thanksgiving Service on Friday 22 December. The climax of it all was when Bishop Sadiq gathered with his people and celebrated the Christmas worship at the Bethel Church where the evil attackers slaughtered people a week earlier and where now the full house of the faithful were singing.
HARK! The herald angels sing
Glory to the new born King;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled:
It brought a new sense of confidence and enthusiasm and the community which have been so traumatised felt revived and strengthened again, especially in their faith and were determined not to let this incident destroy their self confidence in being the followers of Christ.
I personally was able to attend two of the funerals and was able to visit most of the patients in the hospitals and the bereaved families in their homes. The conversations with the families were very painful but at the same time hopeful. I very much hope and pray that those of us who are trying to take care of the physical needs of the victims and also responding to their spiritual and emotional issues, should be mindful lest we exploit them for any wrong and personal reasons. Any such wrong doing leaves a nasty scar not only on the victim, but also damages our community. But I do urge that all well-wishers everywhere should offer help and support to those who have been affected by this tragedy.
In an incident of this nature there are always so many facets and different aspects which are very often debatable, but somewhere has a hidden truth. Some of my reflections are as follows:
- The local police was given lot of accolades by the authorities for preventing a bigger disaster, especially for denying the terrorists entry into the church building. Yes, no doubt, if they had entered into the building itself there would have been hundreds of causalities, so we are grateful to the police for preventing it. But there is a big question mark as to where the local police was when at about midday these terrorist entered the church compound. When the parish priest, the Revd Simon Bashir, entered the church premises at 10.30 am there were police cars and guards outside the gate on the main road itself, including a police guard up in the tower, overlooking the road and the church building. But when the terrorists entered the premises, there was no police and guards at the entry point on the road itself. They were supposed to stay there for the whole time while the service was taking place. So it leaves a big question mark.
- There were patients lying in the hospital who were being asked to bring their own medicines from the shop. It is one of the ugliest practices of our healthcare system. The regular patients are quite used to it, but patients victimised in such incidents just cannot be tortured in this ugly fashion. There is also the case of those patients who needed to be moved to special treatment in other hospitals, but there again such cases were being ignored. Our healthcare system is one of the ugly facets of our country it needs an urgent modification. If you can help these patients in anyway please contact the local church officials and offer your services.
- The perennial question is as to why these attacks take place on our Christian community and the answer often is, because we are Christians. The general feeling is that it is either religious rivalry or a desire of the terrorist to seek wider attention for their cause. These aspects have been quite evident in the previous incidents affecting our community as well. This time ISIS has made a very clear claim that it is they who did it and strong indicators are that it is in retaliation to the recent stance taken by President Trump on the issue of Jerusalem. A recent article in the national newspaper Dawn (24 December 2017) titled: Children of a Lesser God, says that “Things started to change after 2001 after the US invaded Afghanistan. All of sudden, Christians began to be viewed as American and Western agents who were brought to the country to promote an imperialist cause. A lot of the oppression this community faces is because of misconceptions borne out of this line of thinking. Many churches have come under attack by militant groups since then”. This trend can be detected in so many other aspects of life here. One often says that when the West sneezes on such issues; we the Christians of Pakistan (and perhaps elsewhere in similar situations) get the cold. The western governments and our faith siblings in the West should recognise it and not be evasive of this reality.
There is so much more that can be said on these issues but suffice it to say that our Christian community in Pakistan remains faithful even unto death and are proud to live out their faith. These voices of faith and hope resonate whenever you meet such situations and yet you all know that such situations need to be healed and this slaughtering of humanity in the name of religion and ideology must be converted into an embrace of reconciliation and a peaceful living in the human family. May God help us to fulfil this dream.
I cannot help but end this little reflection on a personal note. My father was an army chaplain and Vicar in Quetta for almost 18 years, the longest that he ever served in any parish. I myself spent my late teens there and had part of my tertiary education there and graduated from the local government college and so did my sisters. We moved to the west from this very place in the early 70s and still think of it as our home in Pakistan. So it has caused our whole family a lot of pain that our beloved Quetta has become a bastion of blood suckers. May God give us His Grace of Deliverance and Hope.
Photo: © The General Board of Global Ministries / United Methodist Church / umcmission.org.