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