'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.'Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.
'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.