Two Muslim architects and a Christian priest are breaking the barriers of hate in Pakistan.
RAWALPINDI — In December 2018, Pakistan's powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa attended mass at Christ Church in Rawalpindi next to the country's general military headquarters.
For regional experts, Bajwa's participation along with his wife at a Christian congregation sent a strong message to Pakistan's religious fanatics — that the country's most powerful institution, its army, stands shoulder to shoulder with the Pakistani minority, who have often been targeted with violence by various terror groups.
Bajwa also offered financial help of about $6,500 (one million Pakistani rupees) for the church's renovation.
The gesture, however small in scope, was made at a time when Pakistan has cracked down on terrorism financing and militant groups in an attempt to absolve itself of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list.
The anti-terror momentum continued into 2019 as the government went after several dozen madrassas, banning 182 religious schools in March last year and arresting at least 100 people. And in 2020 Pakistan's anti-terrorism court sentenced Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, to 11 years of imprisonment, holding him guilty of financing terror operations.
The shifting currents within Pakistan's military establishment, which has long been accused of harbouring terrorists for their foreign policy gains in Afghanistan and Indian-controlled disputed Kashmir, has left a positive impact on the ground, encouraging people to speak the language of inclusion without fearing an extremist backlash.
Sarwar Ali embodies the values of inclusive Pakistan. For the past one year, he has been offering Fajr (pre-dawn) prayers in the dusty large hall of the Christ Church. He then proceeds with the renovation of the 160-year-old historic building.
Ali, a 38-year-old practicing Muslim, has made the church his temporary home until he completes its renovation.
“I moved into the church because my home is 400 kilometres away and I cannot afford to commute that far every day,” Sarwar, a tall, wiry man, told TRT World on a cold January morning.
Still yawning, Ali gently rubbed his hands on one of the arches to see if the red bricks he had previously erected were perfectly grinded.
The Christ Church, a branch of the Church of England, is among the oldest buildings built by the British rulers in 1852, when the subcontinent was its colony.
The church was built in the traditional Gothic-style with a dome, a series of arches and pointed-arch windows.
Before Ali and his brother took up the task of fixing it, the local authorities had hired many masons to restore the building to its original form, but they failed miserably. After a long search, they found Ali who was quick to display his skills by fixing some sections of the church with the utmost delicacy, preserving its originality.
“My only wish is that the Lord’s house must look good,” said Reverend Nadeem Kamran, dressed in a large priestly gown, walking across the hallway, inspecting Ali's work.
“The church’s building now looks more beautiful, as originally it was,” he added, appreciating the craftsmanship of Ali and his brother, Akbar Ali Natiq.
Over 60,000 Pakistanis, including soldiers, politicians and civilians, have lost their lives in the past decade in deadly bombings and suicide attacks carried out by religiously extremist terrorist groups.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has bombed several minority religious sites. The terror group considers them as ‘infidel’, liable to be killed for not professing Islam.
Hundreds of Christians have lost their lives in various terror attacks across the country.
Pakistan’s federal minister for human rights and religious minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic Christian, was killed in March 2011 for campaigning against the country's blasphemy law, which has reportedly been misused against both Muslims and non-Muslims.
Similarly, Punjab's governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri in 2011 over his opposition to blasphemy laws. Qadri was later celebrated as a hero by some extremist groups, even building a shrine over his grave.
The Pakistani government has however broken the dark spell of terrorism. From 2009 to 2019, the number of terror attacks in the country has fallen from 2000 to 250, an 85 percent decrease.
“Earlier, there was an ambiguity in the state’s policy on the issue of terrorism, as the army would call the Taliban militants as misled people. So, it was felt that such a stance was becoming an ideological threat to the state, its identity and culture,” Muhammad Amir Rana, the Director at the think-tank Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, told TRT World.
The institutional shift from calling the Taliban as a bunch of "misled people" to terrorists and openly championing the minority rights started under the command of army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani between 2007 and 2013, according to Rana.
"That shift continues till the day. Besides carrying out military operations the army officers also occasionally visited the religious minorities," he said.
The east of Punjab province is home to the majority of the Christian population, and has survived the worst form of communal violence in the past few decades.
In March 2015, on the eve of Easter, at least 15 Christian worshipers were killed and 70 others wounded when two suicide bombers targetted two churches in the eastern city of Lahore.
The attack came months after Muslim mobs torched some 100 houses, as they rampaged through Joseph Colony, another Christian neighbourhood of Lahore, following false blasphemy allegations against a Christian man.
There are also instances in which conservative Muslim professionals refuse to work on renovation projects of historic places of worship belonging to non-Muslim minorities.
But Ali brothers and Kamran, the priest of Christ Church, are breaking such barriers.
“We, the Christians are above such discriminations or anything like that,” the priest says. "No religion teaches that one human being should discriminate against another."
Kamran said that his community is content with the work of Ali brothers and they will soon get another renovation contract of another historic church in the city.
Sarwar Ali is the oldest of six male siblings. He's well versed with different architectural designs — from Gothic to Persian — and understands the art of using small bricks in heritage buildings.
His brother Akbar Ali Natiq is a poet and novelist, besides being a full-time architect.
“The art does not discriminate among human beings on the basis of cast, creed, colour, race and faith,” Natiq said.
Both the brothers were creatively inspired by their father, who built mosques and Hindu temples and Sikh Gurdwaras. When they were children, their father worked in the Middle East in the 1990s, where he built several places of worship of various faiths.
The Ali brothers have built three new churches in different cities of the Punjab province, including one in the town of Kasur, where a Christian couple was burnt in the brick kiln by a Muslim mob on false allegations of blasphemy in 2014.
Natiq said he has written two poems on Jesus Christ — the first one is dedicated to his birth and the second about the pain borne by the Mother Mary during the crucifixion of Jesus.
The Ali brothers and Priest Kamran are optimistic about Pakistan's future. They think the country is fast moving away from the mainstreaming of the politics of hatred — a fallout from the Pakistani state’s patronage of extremism during the 1980s Afghan war that continued for decades after — and growing more tolerant of each other no matter what religion or community they are affiliated with.
Kamran hopes that the renovated church will become a symbol of equality in Pakistan. “I hope this artwork and the message it carries remains here for a long time,” the priest said.