On the Silk Road
The southern branch of this ancient trading highway carried silks from China, in exchange for precious stones and spices from India.
Today the route is as busy as ever, as gaily painted heavy trucks transport goods to the Chinese border and hundreds of little Suzuki taxis weave in and out of the never ceasing stream of traffic.
About three hours north of Rawalpindi on the Silk Road lies the military town of Abbottabad, of recent notoriety as the hiding place and death scene of Osama bin Laden.
Another few miles further on is to be found the smaller, but no less frenetic, community of Qalandrabad, where — like an oasis of calm amid the bustling activity — the Bach Christian Hospital is located.
This 50-bed hospital, run by staff from the Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM), offers affordable medical care for the sick and needy of the region. It was to be my base for my three-week ministry trip, in company with Javed Bhatti of Dewsbury Evangelical Church.
After one day to acclimatise to what was an entirely new experience for me, Javed, David Mitchell (a TEAM missionary) and myself made the three-hour journey into the Murree Hills.
Delightfully situated in the mountains, it was easy to see why the area was so popular as a summer retreat during the days of the British Raj. Our purpose was to provide ministry for a conference of pastors belonging to the Association of Evangelical Churches.
Around 15 men had gathered, some of them with wives and children, for three days of fellowship and study of God’s Word. The theme I had been given was that of discipleship.
We considered the cost of following Christ, marvelled at his love for us (John 13:1) as a powerful motivator, and saw how we can demonstrate to an unloving world that we are disciples (John 13:35).
Back to Qalandrabad for a Sunday morning service, it was my privilege to preach in the local evangelical church. Having met the pastor, Haroun, and the church evangelist, Siddique, at the conference it was easy to feel at home. Around 100 were present, drifting in throughout the service, as is the Pakistani way.
At 10.30am, the start time, about 20 were seated; by 11.00am it was full! Enthusiastic singing was accompanied by two hand-pumped harmoniums. The obligatory drums, played by dancing fingers, provided the rhythm.
In the afternoon we left by air-conditioned coach for Rawalpindi. My assignment here was to teach for a week in the Zarephath Bible Institute (ZBI). This seminary was founded 28 years ago, when it was realised that the teaching provided by the now liberal, mainline denominational colleges was not suitable for evangelical students.
The current principal, Professor Ashkenaz Asif Khan, has a desire to see a study centre established to produce original commentaries and devotional writings in Urdu. This was a demanding week for me, not least because of the heat.
I taught about 25 BTh students for four sessions a day and an evening class. I was greatly impressed with the enthusiasm and faithfulness of these young men and women. Many of them are engaged in active Muslim evangelism and most have experienced violence and temporary imprisonment, but remain fully committed.
During this week I stayed with a husband and wife who are studying at ZBI. It would be something of an exaggeration to call it a ‘flat’ — the facilities were very basic — but their kindness was a joy to experience.
At the end of the week I was taken to Taxila for the 25th Jubilee anniversary of the Association of Evangelical Churches. This was a great occasion. Over 900 had gathered and the service lasted about four hours!
We were almost three hours into the proceedings before I was called upon, yet they listened with much earnestness as I reminded them of the gospel that Peter preached to Cornelius.
On the Sunday I preached in a Brethren assembly, which has a young co-pastor who has studied at Spurgeon’s college, so he was well able to translate for me. I estimated around 120 were present and, although I understood nothing of what they were singing, I felt the warmth and joy of their worship.
For lunch Pastor Robinson took me to a Pizza Hut, which was a pleasant change from the rice and spicy chicken which had been my staple diet up to now!
The following day I had the pleasure of attending the wedding of a nephew of Javed’s. This was an interesting experience. For one thing, the power went off at a crucial time (this is a common thing in Pakistan), so the marriage vows were read by torchlight!
At the same time, there was constant movement in the chapel and all and sundry were coming up to take photographs regardless of the solemnity of the proceedings. This, however, I have discovered is the Pakistani way!
It was time to journey back to Qalandrabad. A highlight of my trip was to visit the Abbottabad Christian Girls High School and address their assembly. Around 250 girls and a mixed primary section are taught in an unashamedly Christian atmosphere.
During the last two years, 49 of these girls had made personal professions of faith and been baptised.
My next commitment was a staff retreat at Bach hospital. Although a Christian profession is required for those who work in the hospital, for many it is purely nominal. This is a common problem in the so-called ‘Christian’ communities in Pakistan.
We addressed the question ‘What is a true Christian?’ and the way it should be evident in their relationships with each other and the patients they treat. A prayer and testimony time at the end of the three sessions was a joy to me, as it showed that the Holy Spirit had applied the message to many hearts.
My last engagement before returning home was of a somewhat different character. St Luke’s Church in Abbottabad is in the Church of Pakistan, which is part of the Anglican Communion.
A residue of British rule, the building would be recognised as a parish church anywhere in Britain. The numbers attending were much smaller than the evangelical congregations and the service was very ‘Anglican’ in flavour. Nevertheless, the preaching had a warm reception and the opportunity to speak to a group of university students later demonstrated to me that the gospel has great potential among young people in Pakistan.
My three weeks in Pakistan were extremely busy, packed full of many different situations and experiences. I appreciate that I was only there for a short time and in a small part of a big country. Nevertheless, my impressions as I returned were quite different to what I had expected.
I had imagined an ‘underground’ church with Christians worshipping in hidden locations and living in fear. Of course, there is discrimination, violence and persecution in this Islamic republic, but what I found were lively, vigorous and well-attended evangelical churches worshipping freely, and openly and actively engaged in Muslim evangelism.
Something infinitely more precious than silk, spices and gems is making its way up and down this ancient highway — the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.