Persecuted in Pakistan: A Christian educator survives a beating

August 20, 2014
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Edwardes College in Peshawar, Pakistan, set up a memory corner for students and alumni who were killed in a bombing in September 2013 at All Saints’ Church, also in Peshawar. Photo courtesy of Titus Presler

The headline of an Anglican News Service article read, “Church of Pakistan college principal beaten.”

I am that principal.

Before the attack there were other acts of intimidation and violence as the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a Pakistani province known for religious extremism, intensified its attempt to seize control of the only college still nominally under the management of the Church of Pakistan. Religious freedom is at stake, for the Pakistan constitution provides that all religious groups have the right to manage their own institutions.

Agents of the military Inter-Services Intelligence had threatened me and Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters and instigated campus demonstrations at Edwardes College in Peshawar, where I serve as principal. In January they intimidated faculty and staff and physically abused a Christian administrator. At that point it was unsafe for me to be in Peshawar, so I monitored events from Islamabad, where I was hosted by a Muslim who supports the rights of religious minorities.

The drama revolves around the college, which was founded in 1900 as the first institution of higher education along the Afghan frontier. It is currently owned by the Church of Pakistan, which was formed in 1970 from the ecumenical union of Anglicans, Lutherans, Meth­odists, and Presbyterians. How did Edwardes, long a model of dignity and decorum, become the scene of threats, agitations, and violence?

Edwardes is not a Christian enclave: 92 percent of the 2,800 students are Muslim, 7 percent are Christian, and 1 percent are Hindu or Sikh; 90 percent of the 105 faculty members are Muslim; and the campus includes a mosque as well as a chapel.

The sources of the current conflict are complicated, but they highlight trends in Pakistan, particularly in regard to the status of its religious minorities and the mission of their institutions.

Higher education in Pakistan is marked by rote teaching and learning, outdated syllabi, and faculty seniority systems that discourage research and innovation. Edwardes offers degrees through the University of Peshawar, but it has prided itself on open discourse and character development. The college’s Integrity Project, initiated in 2012, offers weekly discussions on topics relevant to a society afflicted by religious extremism and sexual violence: purposes of education, discernment of talents, ethical understanding, gender respect, diversity tolerance, community responsibility, and servant leadership.

In 2012 the church and the college mobilized to seek degree-awarding status so that Edwardes could design its own degree programs. The provincial Ministry of Higher Education supported the project enthusiastically and provided a $3.125 million grant to encourage more doctorates, expand the library, upgrade laboratories, and fund a new academic block. A new charter specified that the institution’s sponsoring body would have a majority on the governing board and that the head of the sponsoring body (the bishop) would be the chancellor.

The proposed governance structure sparked conflict. The indigenous church had exercised oversight of the college from 1940 on, but in 1974 the provincial governor installed himself as board chair with a majority of government appointees. The church lived with the new arrangement for fear of losing the college entirely in the nationalizing trend of the ’70s and the Islamizing trend of the ’80s. But unlike full-scale nationalizations of the period, the shift at Edwardes cited no law or policy and did not abolish or even revise the college’s church-designed constitution. Thus it had no legal basis.

The church’s effort to reclaim what is its own by history, law, and constitutional right provoked a violent governmental effort to grab the college and challenge its church sponsorship and ownership. The Diocese of Peshawar is attempting to rectify the situation, but it has limited resources, and it ministers in rugged territory where the Taliban and the Pakistan military are battling for control.

What happens to interreligious relations in Pakistan in the 21st century is important for the global community. Pakistan is the world’s sixth largest nation, predicted to become the fourth largest by 2050, and it is the second largest Muslim-majority nation. It was established in 1947 as a haven for South Asian Muslims alongside Hindu-majority India. Constituting 96 percent of the population, Muslims are the overwhelming majority, but a persistent minority siege mentality has prompted persecution of Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs. Extremist tendencies are aggravated by the legitimization of jihad as a modern military tactic against Soviet and, later, NATO forces in Afghanistan and by the continuing ideological contest in Pakistan between Saudi Wahhabi and Iranian Shi‘ite strands of Islam.

The wider world is familiar with religious persecution in Pakistan: the 2011 assassinations of the Christian religious minorities minister and the Muslim Punjab governor for opposing the blasphemy laws; the Badami Bagh riots in Lahore in March 2013; kidnappings and forced conversions to Islam of Hindu women in Sindh; the bombing of All Saints Church in Peshawar in September 2013, when 128 Christians were killed and about 170 wounded. In February of this year the Pakistani Taliban warned the Kalash, a polytheistic people in mountainous Chitral, to convert to Islam or face death. Many media outlets express outrage and despair at such events, as do millions of moderate Pakistanis—but in private. Silence prompted by fear of retribution keeps extremists powerful.

At about 3.5 million, Christians are probably the largest religious minority, and any increase in numbers makes them a target. Decades of discrimination have left 80 percent of them in menial jobs. Yet the churches have contributed substantially through their clinics, hospitals, schools, and colleges. These institutions also ensure that oppressed Christians have a channel for educational advancement and professional careers. Edwardes represents the Church of Pakistan’s one opportunity to contribute to the struggling higher education sector and thereby enhance its Christian witness.

Now the church’s opponents wish to end this witness in favor of majoritarian hegemony. Those directly involved are not bearded mullahs but college graduates who have been influenced by the Taliban and the religious parties. There have been sectarian riots and books suppressed at the University of Peshawar. At Edwardes some instructors and students objected when passages from both the Qur’an and the Bible were cited in a discussion: they wanted no non-Muslim religious text included. Yet in a society where cultural discourse is intertwined with religious discourse, this kind of discussion is exactly what’s needed: we must cultivate critical thinking, including the analytical ability to separate proposition from proselytism and the readiness to experience difference as an opportunity for discovery rather than as a threat to community.

In February of this year, I received a safe-passage letter from Pakistan’s Interior Ministry and traveled back to Pakistan to appear in Peshawar High Court to support the diocese’s lawsuit against the government’s takeover bid. On our way out of the city, ISI agents flagged down me and my host, tore up the safe-passage letter, and hauled me into their vehicle. For about eight minutes two agents, one on each side, beat me with fists while the agent in the front seat accused me of being a CIA agent, warned me to leave Pakistan, threatened to kill me, and ripped the work visa out of my passport. My host argued strenuously with agents who were keeping watch outside and prevented a worse outcome by securing my release. In mid-April I arrived home to my family in Vermont, where I remain while the church works to resolve the situation.

As we drove away from our attackers, the prayer that came to my mind was this: “Friend Jesus, this and so much worse is what your Christian brothers and sisters have been experiencing here in Pakistan for so long. This and so much worse is what your Muslim brothers and sisters and others have been experiencing here for so long. Now I know it firsthand. I’m not thankful for the beating, Friend Jesus, but I am thankful for the knowledge. And for still being alive.”

Solidarity has been intrinsic to my ministry in Peshawar, but now I was feeling it as never before. My prayer is that Christians who live in free environments will join in prayer and mission with those Christians who are keeping the faith under pressure.


Discussion of article on Edwardes College in Peshawar

These are replies to two Facebook comments on the article:

Response to Robin Brooke-Smith's comment:

During his principalship at Edwardes College as a CMS mission partner in the 1990s, Robin Brooke-Smith worked very hard and made significant administrative improvements that continue to assist the institution today. Robin and I have had a cordial relationship since my visit with him in the UK in 2011.

With a background in secondary education before going to Peshawar, Robin did not envision or pursue the degree-awarding status that was long overdue for the oldest tertiary institution on the frontier, especially as universities both public and private were being founded in Peshawar and its environs. Thus he did not engage the difficult task of resolving by charter the self-contradictory governance introduced in 1974 when the provincial governor formed a new governing board by fiat and relegated the church to a subsidiary role. The “constitutional position” of the college to which Robin refers is quite clear: the Constitution of Pakistan declares that all religious groups have the right to manage their own institutions, and the college constitution clarifies that Edwardes is a church institution. Robin leaves unanswered the question why intimidation and violence have been employed if a different view were constitutionally defensible.

Robin is right that Edwardes has multiple stakeholders, but that is true of all higher education institutions worldwide, whether public or private, church-sponsored or not. Restoring the church to its historic role in Edwardes does not entail playing a zero-sum game, as he suggests, especially when the proposed charter for Edwardes, patterned on the Pakistan Higher Education Commission’s own Model Charter for Private Universities, includes more constituencies than the current governing board. Moreover, these issues are not unique to Edwardes. It is well known in higher education circles that the nationalization of Forman Christian College in Lahore in the 1970s prompted its steep decline, whereas its denationalization and return to the Presbyterian Church in 2003 has revived its academic quality and reputation.

Unfortunately, Robin embraces as facts the allegations made by controversialists in the current situation, such as his statement about academic results, which is not borne out by the statistics. Moreover, his overall depiction is refuted by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Government’s extraordinary $3.125 million grant in January 2013, which was made because provincial education officials were excited by the Management Team’s educational vision and innovations and wanted to support the degree-awarding quest. It is not credible that such a grant would be made in the state of affairs he describes.

Concerning the Diocese of Peshawar and its leaders, Robin urged me to read his book, and I did so with great interest. In a later phone conversation I complimented him on the good writing and then noted: “Robin, it is clear from the book that you did not like or trust Bishop Mano Rumalshah or Humphrey Peters and that you had suspicions about them, but you cite no particulars to support your concerns.” Robin replied, “Well, Titus, you don’t expect people as smart as they are to leave tracks, do you?” Thus no substantiation is provided for the suspicions in the book or for Robin’s serious allegation here about misadministration and destabilization. From the perspective of decades of church experience in North America, Africa, Asia and Latin America, I vouch for the faithfulness and integrity of both Bishop Mano and Bishop Humphrey.

It is unusual that a professional educator would interject his views so strenuously into the affairs of an institution 14 years after his departure. As with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Government, the catalyst seems to be what is regarded as the church’s temerity in seeking to regain primary oversight of its own institution, an initiative fully engaged in 2013. Whence Robin’s hostility toward the church? Sometimes European and North American missionaries feel the need to disparage the capabilities of indigenous churches and their leaders in favor of their own competence and viewpoint. Evidently my defense of the Church of Pakistan’s stance now subjects me to similar censure. Also, at Edwardes a British principal could play off church against government and government against church and thereby reduce his overall accountability to anyone in particular. I have always been clear that the church auspices of Edwardes entail a particular accountability on my part to the indigenous church.

Most disturbing in Robin’s comment is the lack of acknowledgment of those suffering intimidation and violence in Pakistan in violation of their religious freedom. He may be out of touch with the country’s present situation. Perhaps he wrote in haste, eager to promote the memoir. Aside from the particular issues of Edwardes, one would expect from a former CMS appointee in Pakistan some expression of concern for the internationally recognized oppression experienced by Christians and other religious minorities there.

The principalship of Edwardes is currently in dispute, with the Diocese of Peshawar’s Executive Committee insisting through a formal vote that I continue to be the Principal and rejecting as illegal the actions taken by some members of the Board of Governors in December 2013. The matter is in litigation, and I am willing to continue in the post, albeit presently in exile, for as long as the church wishes.

“You have my prayers as always,” Robin Brooke-Smith wrote to me at one point, “I am convinced you are the person to lead the college and I hope you will be back there very soon.” I am grateful for that comment still.

Response to Dan O'Connor's comment:

From the suggestion that pursuing degree-awarding status is inappropriate it seems that the person writing as danoconnor is not familiar with the development of higher education institutions on a global basis, or with the development of colleges and universities in Pakistan, or with the state of higher education in Pakistan today, or with current status of nationalization-versus-privatization in Pakistan. Some clarifying comments are in order.

Many of the best known universities in the world began as small and very modest colleges offering first-level degrees that were sufficient for their constituent communities at the time. As the needs of their societies changed the institutions that rose to the top were those that responded with greater diversity in the available fields of study – meaning more departments and then graduate programs and schools – and higher degrees – meaning masters and doctoral levels – all directed by ever more competent faculties.

Similarly, many colleges formerly affiliated with universities, that is, offering the degrees of nearby universities according to the syllabi set by those universities, developed their own distinctive educational visions and expertise and in due course secured charters to award their own degrees. This is a natural development. It is also normative for institutions that have vitality and creativity for engaging the evolving needs of the societies they serve.

The founding of Edwardes College in 1900 out of Edwardes High School, which had been founded in 1853 in Peshawar, was an instance of such natural and appropriate responsiveness to the progressive needs of society. A high school was no longer enough – a college was needed. It initially offered degrees through the University of Punjab and then through the University of Peshawar after the latter was founded in the early 1950s.

The education offered by Edwardes has long been recognized in Pakistan as distinctive for the interest that faculty take in their students, the openness of discussions in the classrooms, and the cultivation of the whole personality through co-curricular activities. This has mitigated but not erased the still stultifying effects of an examination-based educational system curtailed by syllabi that often have not been revised for 20, 30 or 40 years. The difficult state of higher education in Pakistan receives regular commentary by informed observers such as Dr. Atta ur-Rahman, former Chair of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan.

One would have thought that the innovative and progressive spirit that bore fruit in the founding of Edwardes College would have prompted the institution to forge ahead toward awarding its own degrees, then offering higher degrees, then becoming a university and so on, at least by the 1960s. Instead, administrators and faculty were content to run a major intermediate program and the 2-year bachelors program. Edwardes was falling behind the educational needs and norms of Pakistani society, and international norms as well.

Meanwhile new universities, both public and private, were founded all around it. Khyber Medical College, Peshawar Agricultural University, and the University of Engineering and Technology developed out of former units of the University of Peshawar. Islamia College, formerly an affiliated college of the University of Peshawar, is now Islamia College University. In the private sphere Qurtuba University, Sarhad University and Iqra University, among others, were founded in Peshawar. Is Dan O'Connor similarly disapproving of these developments? Does he disapprove of the private founding of the Lahore University of Management Sciences or of Agha Khan University, both highly respected nationally and internationally? If not, why does he single out the Edwardes case for disapproval?

The writer’s critique is belied by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Government’s own strong support for the degree-awarding quest so that Edwardes could make its own mark. Indeed, when it appeared that degree-awarding status for the 4-year baccalaureate degrees might not be granted in time for the opening of the academic year in September 2013, officials in the Directorate of Higher Education suggested that we not affiliate with the University of Peshawar’s fairly new 4-year program but, instead, postpone for a year so that we could make what they regarded as a desirable and distinctive fresh start on our own.

The writer’s critique that the degree-awarding pursuit is privatizing is nonsensical in the case of a private institution, which Edwardes is as an institution of the Diocese of Peshawar (Church of Pakistan), but of course that is the very issue now contested against all historical and constitutional grounds by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Government. The writer does not seem aware that the federal Finance Ministry has a Privatization Division charged with returning over 60 industries to private hands, thereby indicating that the nationalizations of 40 years ago have been thoroughly discredited.

As for the writer’s critique that the degree-awarding pursuit is sectarian, the fact is that it was launched purely on educational grounds, both at the earlier attempt in the early 2000s when Canon Huw Thomas was Principal, and in the current initiative. The issue of auspices arose only in connection with the required charter, for which the HEC’s Model Charter for Private Universities provided appropriate guidance about the role of the sponsoring body. The writer may not be familiar with the facts of the denationalization of religious institutions. Christian Training Institute in Sialkot was denationalized and handed back to the Presbyterian Church in 1998. Since its denationalization in 2003, Foreman Christian College in Lahore has made enormous strides in regaining the high standing in had before nationalization, which had been widely recognized as having led to a disastrous decline. In 2005 St. Joseph’s College and St. Patrick’s College in Karachi were returned to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Karachi. The charge of sectarianism is thus refuted by recent history in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.