Standing outside the Saint Thomas Church near Parachinar’s main bazaar, Father Riaz Masih was glancing at the dark clouds blanketing the sky, wondering when it will start raining. The Pakistan flag atop the church was flapping incessantly due to the heavy winds, foreboding a major storm.
The church was established in 1987 after the political administration of the then-tribal agency of Kurram allotted a kanal of land along with Rs500,000 for construction. Since then, Parachinar’s Christian community has been frequenting the church on Sundays as well as on religious occasions. At present, the building — powered by solar panels — can accommodate around 300 people.
Riaz, 59, informed that until the 1960s, there were no Christians in Parachinar. “In 1903 when the British Raj set up their camps here, three Hindu families from Kohat settled here too,” recalled Riaz, adding that the Hindu population had mushroomed to seven families by the time of Partition in 1947. “Two of those families migrated to India while the rest stayed back. When Christian missionaries came to the area in the 1960s, the remaining Hindus converted to Christianity,” he added.
The first church for the community was constructed in FC Colony in the 1960s but as the population swelled, in 1980, another colony was established. Kurram District’s lone Christian ‘Malik’ (tribal leader), James, informed that the stable for British forces was converted into the first colony for Christians. “There was a small church there but in 1987 the area’s largest church, Saint Thomas, was established,” he added.
Since the arrival of the first Christians in the area, the community grew to around 250 individuals residing in two colonies. While most were initially associated with sanitary work, at present Christian children are enrolled in both public and private schools of the district while the adults, including women, are employed in the local police as well as the Frontier Constabulary and Frontier Corps. James also proudly mentioned that one of their community members is a Captain in the Pakistan Army.
Bordering Afghanistan, Kurram has been a hotbed of terrorism and sectarian violence since the last two decades. From 2008-13, the area was cut off from the rest of the country due to the deteriorating law and order situation. Locals entering and leaving the area had to go to Khyber Agency and Afghanistan’s Nangarhar and Khost provinces and then reach Kurram, and vice versa.
James shared that despite the incessant conflict between the area’s Sunnis and Shias, which often included the use of heavy artillery and gunfire, none of the Christians left the valley. “Like the other locals, Christians welcomed the military operation in the area which restored peace,” explained James.
Looking at the Pakistan flag, James said they could have just used religious symbols on their church but “we love our country as much as our religion and our patriotism is the same as that of other Pakistanis.”
“This flag will continue to be adorned on our church as long as I live.”