PESHAWAR: While prayers were in progress inside a hall at the All Saints Church, the Christian community continued to pour in until a veranda outside the prayer hall also got jam-packed.
Shaukat Chaudhry, a member of the church’s management committee, was standing outside the prayer hall to receive his community members. “Like others, Christians are also growing in population day by day, but this church is having problem of space shortage now,” he said while referring to the rush of the worshippers.
The church was under tight security of the police and army personnel on Monday on the occasion of Christmas day. More than 80 people had been killed and more than 170 injured in the twin suicide attacks on the church in September 2013.
The church was built in 1883 during British rule in the subcontinent. It is located inside Kohati Gate of the old walled city, though the city wall does not exist in its original form now and most of it has been encroached upon.
Unlike other churches, the All Saints Church’s architecture resembles a mosque, with round minarets and a huge dome over the main prayer hall. “When it was being built by the British rulers, they initially did not let locals, mostly Muslims, know that they were building a church. This is why the building resembles a mosque and people were also thinking they would get a masjid. But when it was completed and the authorities placed a Christian cross on its main dome, the local people protested against it,” said Waseem, a caretaker of the church.
Recalling the 2013 twin bombings at the church, Shaukat Chaudhry said several people have still not recovered from the injuries that they suffered while some have been maimed for life.
He said since the attack, his community had limited their activities on Christmas. “In the past, we used to hold melas (fairs) when we would meet friends and relatives in an open space after worshipping in the churches. After the 2013 attacks, we have stopped holding those melas due to security reasons,” he added.
There are four major churches in Peshawar, including two in the city and two in the Cantonment area. A few small churches are located in scattered settlements of Christian community in the rural and urban parts of the provincial capital.
Senior Peshawar police officers visited the churches in the city and other parts of the province on Christmas day. Capital City Police Officer Muhammad Tahir Khan visited the main churches in Cantonment area while SSP Operations Javed Iqbal cut a cake at the All Saints Church in the city to celebrate the occasion.
Speaking to the media, the SSP Operations said that the police not only secured the churches on Christmas day but the security remains tight on other days too, especially on Sundays.
When approached, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Minister for Religious Affairs Habibur Rehman said the government always treated the minorities well. He said that besides three percent special quota in government jobs, minorities can also compete for jobs on open merit.
“Islam teaches equality and lays emphasis on the well-being of minorities. We have facilitated them at their places of worship. But problems are there not only for the minorities but also for Muslim Pakistanis because resources sometimes fall short,” he argued.
He said that being a minister, he is willing to cooperate with the elected representatives of minorities, including Christians to solve their problems. He also reminded that the minorities’ affairs portfolio is with the Chief Minister Pervez Khattak.
When approached, the chief minister’s coordinator for minorities Ravi Kumar said that the chief minister had recently approved a project to expand space for prayers in the All Saints Church in Peshawar.
“Being minorities’ coordinator, I regularly visit the places of worship and listen to the community members. I have never heard this complaint from other worship places but we have got this issue of space shortage at the All Saints Church only,” he added. “Since this is a British-era church, we are working closely with the Archaeology Department to resolve the issues,” he said.
Nawazuddin, research officer of the Archaeology Department, told The News that their team has visited the All Saints Church and would do repair work there. “However, we cannot allow expansion of the church because it is an archaeological site. Yes, we will decide if any extra hall or room should be built there or not, but the existing structure cannot be altered being an archaeological site,” he added.