Features | Society | South Asia

Meet Quetta’s ‘Untouchable’ Christians

They embraced the religion of their invaders to escape the caste system that had condemned them to a miserable existence. But Karlos Zurutuza reports on how, centuries later, Christians in the Taliban stronghold of Quetta are once again becoming ‘untouchables.’

Dubbed 'Little London' when still under British rule, Quetta, in Pakistan's Balochistan Province, was levelled to the ground by an earthquake in 1935. Yet, although the physical evidence of the city's colonial heritage was lost in the temblor, reminders remain of the British legacy–locals still add milk to their tea, for example, and when they take to the roads they drive (nominally at least) on the left.

But look closely at the motifs that adorn locals' rickshaws and motorised tricycle taxis and a very different image emerges–one of an ethnically mixed subcontinent city. For while the colourful flags of the Pashtun and Baloch political parties most frequently embellish these small vehicles, there's no shortage of black Shiite banners, or the Jamiat Ulama´e Islam's black and white horizontal stripes (which also serve as reminders that many in Quetta demand the strict enforcement of traditional Islamic law).

Against the backdrop of noisy rickshaws meandering around pedestrians, cars and trucks, rumours frequently circulate quietly around the bazaar. 'A truck full of explosives has entered the city,' went one whisper I heard, prompting the ever-versatile tricycles to change their routes in response to this latest rumour. Avenue Noordar, the city's main artery, which is lined with government offices, is sealed off by concrete roadblocks, forcing the tricycles to fan out along alternative routes.

The only distinguishing mark on Rehan's vehicle is a small image of the Virgin Mary, visible only when he lowers the sun visor. This unexpected apparition is a privilege reserved for members of Quetta's Christian community and the few Westerners who visit Quetta. The discretion of this skinny, raven-haired man is understandable in this border city, where ethnic tensions often explode into targeted killings and random bombings.

Quetta is just a one-hour drive from the Afghan border, and two from Kandahar. Yet although this is the capital of the part of Balochistan controlled by Pakistan, even here Balochs are a minority–outnumbered by the tens of thousands of refugees arriving from Afghanistan. Most of these incomers survive through smuggling Iranian underwear, Afghan opium or Russian weapons.

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The influx of refugees adds to the remarkable variety of ethnicities here–women hidden under blue burkhas, Tajiks with their distinctive aquiline noses, beardless Uzbeks and almond-eyed Shia Hazaras. Locals also 'know' that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar lives here, protected by his personal Baloch guards and, according to many, by the Pakistani Army. It's no surprise that Quetta means 'fortress' in Pashto, the language of the Pashtuns.

Educating tomorrow's Talibans
Much like Russian dolls, the great fortress of Quetta has a plethora of redoubts tucked away inside it. There are the houses of the different religious or tribal leaders, the secure government buildings and even a few Christian colleges. The St. Francis Grammar School is one of them.

'It's probably the best in Quetta,' says Younis B, the school's manager who says the school was originally meant for the British stationed here, but that when they withdrew in 1947 it was left in locals' hands. Today, St Francis Grammar School's admissions policy does not discriminate between faiths. It has 2000 students and, surprisingly, even children of Taliban mullahs share desks with the about 300 Christians here.

'Their parents will never acknowledge it in public, but they all know that Pakistani public education leaves much to be desired,' Younis says.

Yet it's almost impossible to find any Christian symbols around the building–they are reserved for the school manager´s office and the chapel. And despite the apparently secular atmosphere, a teacher from the school was forced to flee Quetta after being pilloried for hanging a calendar of a famous brand of cars on a wall. The cars were not the problem. What riled some was the date–2009–a Christian rendering not favoured in Quetta. 'A pupil told his father, a mullah, that our teacher was indoctrinating his class in Christianity,' Younis says. 'Of course, the teacher flatly denied the allegation. Unfortunately, though, the constant threats from the fundamentalists eventually meant our teacher had to leave Quetta.'

Many more might soon be forced to flee the region. Rumours abound about an upcoming major military operation in the area, similar to those in the Swat valley and Waziristan. Such rumours increase the pervading sense of insecurity, especially among the members of the Christian community. 'Where will we go if they force us to leave our house? Afghanistan? Iran?' asks Younis. Neither would be a promising option for a Punjabi Christian.

The sister school of St. Francis Grammar School is the St Joseph's Girls' School, just 200 metres away, and governed by Sister Magdalene. 'Quetta has a very conservative mentality. No woman goes out except to the market or to the temple,' explains the Dominican nun between sips of green tea.

Sister Magdalene says that the complete lack of independence for women applies to virtually the entire female population of Quetta, with the Roma perhaps the only exception.

The Roma here stand out–Roma women do not cover their hair and, barefoot and with pierced noses decorated with rings, they beg along Jinnah Road, appearing oblivious to the inquisitive stares of passers-by. The stares are, in effect, punishment for the Roma's 'lack of respect' for local rules of decorum. Many Roma are murdered after being abducted and raped. Small wonder, since they are easy prey and, moreover, a loss that few outside the Roma community will cause a fuss over.

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'Religion isn't a major handicap for local women,' explains Sister Magdalene. 'Being a woman is just as difficult for all of us.'

'Convert or die!'
The majority of Christians in Quetta live in a district close to the Kandahari bazaar, a vibrant commercial hub where the Taliban's black and white turbans often resemble a moving chess board. On August 1, eight Christians were burned to death after a mob set fire to their neighbourhood in the town of Gojra, Punjab Province. A few days later, eight more Christians were executed at the hands of fundamentalists in Quetta. It is said several families had received letters in which they were given ten days to convert to Islam. Those who chose to stay, and remain Christian, paid for their 'offence' with their lives.

'Many fled after the letters arrived, and even more when the Taliban carried out their promises,' recalls Farqalit, a local Christian. 'Their goal is to make us disappear, one way or another,' he says adding he feels 'too old' to move to Karachi, a booming megacity of over 20 million people that seems to be the last chance of survival for many of Farqalit's neighbours.

'We all try to hide the high number of suicides among our people,' says Rufin, Farqalit's nephew. He wears a baseball cap, an earring in his left ear and a cross on his necklace; a brave declaration of principles in such a hostile environment.

The recent fundamentalist threat has exacerbated already difficult living conditions. But suicides among the Christian community in Pakistan are far from new. 'Life here is hard for everyone: Punjabies, Pashtuns, Baluchs, Hazaras… but suicides are more common among us Christians than among the Muslim community,' says this young Catholic with an expression that reflects anger and shame in equal measure.

The 'bunker' of faith
The Holy Rosary Church is the main one for Christians in the Balochistan region. It's an austere concrete building, a place more defensive than spiritual, and an uninspiring modern imitation of the solid Romanesque European churches of the Middle Ages. The entrance is a metal door in a backstreet heavily guarded by Pakistani police and private staff–just another of those little fortresses hidden away in Quetta.

But once inside, the atmosphere is more relaxed. Men and women remove their shoes at the entrance of the church before splitting along the sides of the hallway: women dressed in their colourful garments to the right, and men in white or light blue baggy clothes at the left. The sound of drums and songs being sung by the choir in Punjabi help bring some colour to the austere Roman litany.

Among the attendees is Victor Ganapragasam, a Tamil priest who arrived from his native Sri Lanka 35 years ago. Today he oversees the Apostolic Prefecture of Quetta. He has had hardly any sleep after a three-day journey visiting three Christian families in the middle of the Baloch desert. 'We're around 35,000 in Quetta and hardly 80,000 in the whole Balochistan province,' he says. 'Our people are very scared, so every little effort matters when it comes to preventing them from fleeing the region.'

'The threats to our community members began with the invasion of Afghanistan, eight years ago,' Ganapragasam says. 'The Taliban gathered in front of our churches accusing us Christians of destroying their people. Can you believe it? Us!' he says indignantly as he exchanges greetings with those now leaving the church. 'Unfortunately for them, the Taliban worldview is as black and white as their turbans. They see Christians as infidels and believe we must be punished as such.'

'We were happy as Hindu, why did you Europeans have to convert us?' Ganapragasam jokes.

The mountain of shoes at the entrance of the chapel has vanished. The men shake hands and say goodbye until next Sunday, and the women thoroughly cover their hair before crossing the threshold of the Holy Rosary Church of Quetta, the metal gate of which now separates the 'heaven' promised by the colonial settlers of yesteryear from the hell of today's 'war on terror.'