The main purpose for me personally was to visit one of our partners. We’ve been supporting one of them for 15 years and they’re one of our major projects because we normally send them about £25,000 per year. Now that’s very important to them because their total budget is about £125,000. That’s 20% of their total requirement. And they’re a very effective organisation and I’m personally very excited by them and energised to see that support continue at that level.
Could you give us some case studies. What kind of things do they do?
They offer free legal defence to any Christian who’s accused for whatever reason, even if they’re guilty. But in many cases they’re falsely accused. So, for example, the worst accusation could be blasphemy and this can be a tactic used to settle personal scores or to remove business competition. However, you can be pretty sure that since Christians know the dire penalties for this it is unlikely that they’re going to blaspheme Mohammed or desecrate the Koran. Although in some cases the blasphemy consists of burning or marking a copy of the Koran, Christians are often illiterate so they might not realise that they’re doing that. They could, in their accusers eyes, actually have desecrated the Koran but they did so innocently because they can’t read. So that’s the most serious type of case. But there could be all kinds of cases where Christians have been assaulted or robbed or sadly there are quite a number of cases where women are kidnapped, raped and then forced to convert to Islam and marry their abusers.
Did you have the chance to meet some of the people they work with?
I did; several.
Were there any particular stories that stood out to you?
The one that really got me was a 13 year old. She was abducted, raped. She was so badly assaulted that she didn’t stop bleeding and had to go to hospital. The rapist was 40 and already married. I found out later that the reason they do this, not only because they want another wife but some of them believe that God is going to reward them for converting Christians to Islam, even through violent and horrendous means.
How truly heart-breaking. Were there any signs of hope at all?
The fact is our partner has a fantastic rehabilitation centre for them. There’s a 24/7 house manager who’s a former nun, and there most of them take part in morning worship. They do things like making jewellery and things of that sort. So there’s a kind of therapeutic and practical skill that they learn and crucially I think they probably form friendships. Because if you’ve been through something and you’re with someone who has been through a similar or identical experience that creates a very close bond. And three of the girls in their later teens are actually on a government training course because they’ve been assessed as having skills in fashion design and / or sewing. They’re making a massive difference. I didn’t ask the question about how many girls were in this kind of situation but you can be pretty confident that there’s going to be many more that haven’t sought help. But nevertheless, this extraordinary love is what I think is transforming these girls and helping them to heal.
Yes indeed. Apart from rehabilitating these young women do they do anything else in terms of the blasphemy law that incriminates Christians for their beliefs?
They are trying to see the law changed. I asked how long might this take and the answer was ‘four to five years’ which surprised me because the laws have been in place for some time so that seems a very optimistic hope. But nevertheless, it would be wonderful, if instead of becoming even more conservative at least in terms of the legal system or more intimidated by the Taliban, whichever way you look at it, if the government actually became more liberal and rescinded that really awful law that would be a wonderful thing.
Is there anything being done to push the government to repeal these laws?
Well apparently most politicians are too frightened to continue that impetus and they are not doing much.
Were there any other partner organisations that you were able to meet when you were there?
Yes. One of our other partners, who exists mainly to visit prisoners once or twice a week plus their families once or twice a month and to act as a conduit of news and encouragement. Because sometimes families can’t visit the prisoners themselves. They also provide some encouragement to the families. Ninety nine times out of 100 the husband will be in prison in pretty dire conditions and the wife and children suffer financially. So they will bring along small gifts of food or clothing – sometimes even a little bit of money.
Did you meet anyone who had been helped by that ministry?
Yep. I met six women whose husbands are currently in jail. Their husbands were in jail following the March 2015 Youhanabad bomb attacks so the men folk have been in prison for over a year. And you can imagine a year without any income at all. The pantry soon goes bare. Each of these families is living in a slum. What that means is they live in a room that’s only slightly bigger than an average garage for a single car. The walls are built of brick. The floor is cement. The country is extremely dusty so the homes are dusty as well. So it’s extremely primitive living. The women were clearly very distressed and wanting us to pray and advocate for their husbands release. However, those I met separately – from the Muslim background believer category [MBB] – had such incredible peace and joy in their eyes and in their words that it humbled me. It moved me and impressed me that here were people who – in the case of MBBs – were in danger for their lives because of their faith. And the danger is not imaginary. It is very very real.
Did you meet with any ministries that help MBBs?
Yes. There is one pastor who secretly supports approximately 50 MBBs in two major cities for a few years now and I know that those he supports are hugely grateful and that happens from financial gifts from Release supporters. And also the kind of practical support he gives to them in terms of financial help.
That’s brilliant. Are there any final thoughts that you’d like to share with Release supporters who will be reading this who might want to help Pakistani Christians or pray for them or learn lessons of Christian discipleship with them. I liked what you said about their joy earlier.
Whilst I was there one of the first things we did was attend a memorial service for 10 of the victims of the 2015 blast and their nearest relatives there. We were able to give to them what to us is a small gift but to them would be at least a month’s income and just to express some compassion and lighten their loads a little. But while the service was going on in Urdu – which I don’t understand – I was reflecting on the words of Jesus where he said: ‘Blessed are you who mourn’. These people are still mourning a year later. Why did Jesus say that? How do they manage to keep on with their faith – why do they not just give up and convert to Islam? It’s because of the joy. And the privilege of Western Christians is to see the joy and the love of the Christians who have almost nothing – they have an incredibly basic diet, they do incredibly menial work, the illiteracy indicates many of them have had very little education – but what is clear is that they have a real relationship with Jesus and therefore to have fellowship with them in any way, no matter how remotely, simply by supporting them with a small gift connects us with our brothers and sisters in Christ. There is a sense in which when we are a Christian we are connected to every other member of the body of Christ. It’s just a fact. But the connection inside the body is of blood being pumped from one part to another. My blood vessels supply the whole body. It’s when we actually interact with people that we’re genuinely connected with them. I’m not saying that Christians in the UK all ought to support Christians in Pakistan because everybody has their own calling. But there is a huge huge blessing in expressing our compassion for those who are less advantaged.
Thank you so much Peter.
*If you are able to help Release support some of the victims of the Lahore terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday, as well as carry on its long term work in Pakistan you can find out more here.
By Mata Bremner