By Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali
The Friday Times : 01 Dec 2017
An overview by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali
St Anthony's Church in Lahore - an example of a 'railway church'
It is well known that Christianity arrived in what is now Pakistan very early. Archaeological discoveries at Taxila provide a background to the 2nd century claim that the Apostle Thomas visited this area. The fact that Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was spoken here since Seleucid times and that there was a flourishing Indo-Greek culture add verisimilitude to claims of an early arrival.
Where Lahore is concerned, however, a Christian presence cannot be established with certainty before the 16th century. I would like to point out, though, that this presence is seen to be of both the ‘Oriental’ and the ‘Western’ type. The Emperor Akbar had a wife with Christian connections and an adopted son who was Christian. Oriental Christians, often called Armenian but from different parts of the Middle East, openly served in the Mughal artillery and cavalry. There seems to have been a Christian quarter in Lahore but the only surviving oriental ecclesiastical remains appear to be in the Zenana at the Fort: the paintings have been badly damaged but we can still see a bishop with a patriarchal Cross, Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, someone reading from the Bible, sacraments being administered, etc.
St Oswald’s church, Mughalpura
The first church building that we know of for certain was erected by the Jesuits, with Akbar’s permission and funds from Prince Salim (later to be the Emperor Jahangir) in the last decade of the 16th century. It has had a history of mixed fortunes, being closed and destroyed at different times. Dr. Majid Sheikh has identified the present church which stands on the site. How a Jesuit-founded church became Presbyterian is a mystery to me but there are other instances of Church property changing hands in Lahore.
At first, the British used existing Mughal period buildings as churches. So the Diwan-i-Khas or Hall of Private Audience, inside the Fort, was used as a garrison church and, from 1851-1891, Anarkali’s tomb in the grounds of the Secretariat was so used.
There are about 100 churches in Lahore. Most are used enthusiastically for worship and other activities but some cannot be used because the surrounding community will not allow it
As far as purpose-built churches in the nineteenth century are concerned, the beautiful St Mary Magdalene in Lahore Cantonment seems to be the first, with the building having been started in 1854. The entire building is in white stone supposedly to give a message of peace and love. The Clock, installed in 1857, is still working! St Andrew’s Nabha Road Presbyterian Church was founded in 1860 and is one of Lahore’s historic buildings affected by the planned Metro. It celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2010.
Perhaps the best known church is ‘Kookarh Wala Girja’ (the Weathercock Church).Its formal name, the Cathedral Church of the Resurrection, is little used in the street. This was built and consecrated as a Cathedral for the newly created diocese of Lahore (1867). Designed by the son of the famous Gilbert Scott, its style is a combination of ‘Early English’ and Indo-Saracenic. It is built in red sandstone and brick, standing as a grand complement to the High Court buildings opposite.The well known Taxila Cross is kept here.
Only a few yards up the Mall is the Roman Catholic cathedral of the Sacred Heart. This is also a famous landmark and is built in a mixed Byzantine and Western style. The design was prize-winning in its time. The steeple is 168 feet high, the nave is 68 feet long and the transept is 125 feet wide.
The Taxila Cross
With the coming of the Railways, Lahore became not only an important East-West and North-South junction but a major workshop and the Headquarters of the North-Western Railway system. Many of the skilled workers were Europeans, Anglo-Indians or, as they were called, native Christians. This led to the building of the so-called ‘Railway churches’. The oldest of these is St Andrew’s, Empress Road. This is a fine example of a late Victorian church and stands modestly in its own grounds, having, as is often the case, its school adjacent to it. St Anthony’s Roman Catholic church is another example of a railway church and was recently expanded because of the growing size of its congregations. The building of churches, their repair and extension, is very much a burden on the local Christians as there is little assistance from abroad. St Oswald’s, Mughalpura, is another gem of a railway church. At one time it was the centre of outreach work throughout the East of Lahore up to the Indian border. It retains a large and active congregation.
Holy Trinity, Nila Gumbad and Naulakha Presbyterian (with its distinctive domed tower) are examples of churches built for worship in the vernacular i.e. Urdu and Punjabi.These days, of course, most worship is in these languages, with English or Latin being offered in only a few places.
Although many churches in Lahore are from the 19th or early 20th centuries, many others are much more recent: St Mary’s Catholic Church in Gulberg dates from the 1960s, whereas the diocese of Raiwind’s new cathedral of the Praying Hands was consecrated only a few years ago.
There are about 100 churches in Lahore. Some are large and magnificent buildings but many are in poor areas and in restricted circumstances. Most are used enthusiastically for worship and other activities but some cannot be used because the surrounding community will not allow it. Many churches have schools, halls and other facilities attached to them, from where they can serve the wider community. Christian schools, colleges, universities and hospitals also often have chapels attached to them which are used for divine worship and for service to the community. Religious orders invariably have chapels for contemplation, prayer and study. Lahore has many fine examples of such chapels. In addition, there are now a large number of ‘house churches’, with congregations meeting in private homes for Bible study and devotions but these, though significant, are outside the scope of this overview.
The future of churches in Pakistan, like much else, is under threat from extremism and terrorism. A number have been attacked, with loss of life and limb. The government now requires high walls to be built around these previously accessible buildings. Although this reduces the risk of attack, it is a stark picture of how extremism has separated and ghettoised communities in Pakistan. Let us pray and work for the return of an open society where people are free to practice their faith and to share with one another.
As an eminent Pakistani poet, Ghulam Masih Naaman, has well said:
“A city where stone-throwing is the price of glass-making
A Fool is the one who blows glass in such a place!”
May it not be so for Lahore…