Building a church

May 28, 2023

Due process is no guarantee that intolerance cannot get in the way of religious freedom

Building a church


or six years, members of a Christian community collected donations to build a new church in the provincial capital.

They were able, finally, to purchase land and allocate a portion of it for the church. Official records show as much.

However, after the events of December 31, the construction of a new place of worship is looking like a herculean task.

Work on the Protestant church building had begun when, on New Year’s Eve, a violent mob descended on the site and demanded that the construction be stopped forthwith.The crowd grew in aggressive behavior. There was hate speech, slogan chanting and vandalism. The contractor and the watchman were threatened and the work was halted. The mob did not go away. They looted the construction materials and equipment.

In the aftermath of this violence, some of the Christian families in the vicinity were compelled to leave their homes. Some of them left the city and stayed away for several weeks.

The head of the church recalls being shaken after receiving death threats that night. In the absence of a church building, his congregation had been forced to celebrate Christmas and Easter services at their homes.

According to census data, 51,018 Christians lived in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2017, half of them in Peshawar. Christians are the third-largest faith community in Pakistan, making up 1.27 percent of the country’s population.

How did the project start?

The pastor says the community had started collecting donations to build a new church about six years ago.

At least 30 Christian families had purchased plots in the NawayKalay locality, known for being the birthplace of many renowned cricket and squash players. Six of the families were settled in the neighbourhood.

Members of the community purchased 55 marlas of land for Rs 20.8 million and set aside 11 marlas for the construction of a new church.

According to official land records, the previous owner of the 11-marla land transferred its ownership to the church on receiving a part of the payment.

The News on Sunday (TNS) has seen the land purchase agreement. According to the document, Rs10.8 million was paid to Malik Zahoor Khan, the previous owner of the land.

However, shortly after the construction work began, a social media campaign was launched to stop the construction of the church in a ‘Muslim locality.’

On December 31, a violent crowd gathered at the construction site and vandalised it. When the priest incharge of the church approached the police to register a complaint, some of the officials accused him of not seeking ‘proper permission’ before starting the work.

The church has since submitted a petition at Peshawar High Court. A decision is awaited.

Meanwhile, the congregation is not allowed to visit the land they have purchased.

“The property owner is asking for the remaining amount. We are demanding possession of the land,” the priest says. “We have also started negotiations with another person to sell other church land and pay the balance,” he says.

Malik Zahoor Khan, a property dealer and chairman of the Garhi Sikandar Khan village council, says he sold the 55-marla land in NawayKalay to representatives of the Christian community.

He also says that he had ‘no objection’ to the construction of a church on the land. “The parties signed the land purchase agreement,” he says, adding “After the payment, 11 marlas land was transferred to the church.”

The law is crystal-clear; freedom of religion is a fundamental right enshrined in the constitution. However, in practice, it doesn’t always work that way.

“A groundbreaking ceremony was held on the day the land was allocated for the church.” He recalls that “members of the Christian community were elated. They distributed free food in the area.”

“Later a mob came together and opposed the construction of a church in the locality. Some people from other villages too joined them,” says Khan.

Khan says the construction work has been stopped after the violence. “The dispute could end up costing me Rs 20 million,” he says.

Similar disputes

This is not the first time the Christians have been deprived of a congregational space in Peshawar. Disputes involving churches and Christian community centres have been reported from other parts of the city too.

The Christian community centre located in Swati Phatak is one such example. The centre was shut down for several months by the administration citing a dispute over ownership and the law and order situation for its closure.

Augustin Jacob, a Peshawar-based social activist, told TNS, “More than 100 Christian families live in Swati Pathak. The community centre was closed down because some of the local Muslims raised objections.”

“The community centre was built using the special minority fund,” says Jacob. “It was not as if the Muslim citizens had no place of congregation in the locality. They have several large mosques,” he says.

“Some of the objecting persons wanted to assume control of the centre and use it for wedding functions instead,” he says. “When members of the Christian community resisted, the land was declared disputed and the centre was barred shut,” he says.

“This was a blow to the community, especially during the pandemic when large gatherings at major churches were prohibited,” says Jacob. “Since the community centre was also closed, we had no other option but to assemble for Sunday prayers in the basement of our homes,” he added.

Jacob recalls, “Later, the administration mediated and the dispute was resolved. But cultural and religious gatherings at the venue are restricted for the safety of the community.”

“Unfortunately, building a new church is not an easy task. To ensure the safety of the community, we are considering establishing community centres instead,” says Jacob. “These centres can be used for various religious and cultural gatherings,” he says.

Jacob says, “It is truly unfortunate that even when we (the community) own a piece of land, we cannot build a church on it.”

“We face threats for practising our faith… The breathing space for minorities is shrinking. To some people, everything is offensive,” says a member of the centre, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We don’t want the situation to escalate. We have suffered a lot in the past,” he says.

No easy solutions

Riaz Ghafoor, the co-founder of Peace Promoter, a Peshawar-based volunteer youth group that works with members from Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Bahai communities, says: “We work for an inclusive and diverse society where people from all faiths live in harmony and freely practise their religion without fear. We want to tackle discrimination through peaceful dialogue,” says Ghafoor.

The law is crystal-clear; freedom of religion is a fundamental right enshrined in the constitution. However, in practice, it doesn’t always work that way.

“Minorities are allowed to build places of worship. The constitution is supreme law. It provides equal rights to minorities to practise religion freely and maintain and construct religious places. They don’t need a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the administration or a clearance from the police,” says lawyer Tariq Afghan.

Building a church



he provincial government has a dedicated fund reserved for minorities’ welfare but building a church is still not an easy task for the Christian community of Charsadda. It faces a predicament similar to that of the community in Peshawar.

According to Stephen Sani, a priest in Charsadda, members of the community purchased some land near the bank of the Swat River. For several months, they have been planning to construct a few houses and a church there.

Sani said that the plan has yet to materialize. He says the local administration has raised some objections to the construction of the church.


The writer is a multimedia journalist. He tweets @daudpasaney

Building a church