By Stephen McKinley
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Last Thursday morning, rain fell heavily over Islamabad, and clouds hung low on the tops of the Margallah Hills that enclose one side of the city, giving them an uncanny resemblance to the hills in northern Donegal.
It seemed appropriate, therefore, to run into Father John Nevin, an Irishman.
Nevin, a missionary priest with the Mill Hill Missionary Society, has been living in Islamabad since 1965, two years after this entirely pre-planned city was founded as the new capital of Pakistan.
“We have a parish of about 2,000 families here,” he said, in what is an overwhelmingly Muslim country.
Christianity, according to legend, came to this region nearly 2,000 years ago, spread, it is said, by St. Thomas. Today, Fr. Nevin does not seek to spread Christianity any further — in fact, he said, seeking converts is strictly forbidden by Pakistani law. His main duty is to shepherd his small flock.
“I had an Afghan family show up at Mass last week,” said Nevin, who hails from Kildare. “Afterward, they asked me about converting to the church.”
He explained that such inquiries often come because people think that asserting their Christianity on a visa application would somehow expedite their passage to the UK, the U.S., or another Western country.
“I told them to get lost,” he said, laughing. “What could I do? It’s too dangerous even if people were sincere.”
Pakistan’s laws have landed many of minority faiths in jail. That said, Nevin continued, since Sept. 11, things have noticeably changed.
“The president, Musharaff, has been very eager to stay on the side of America, and to be seen to be on their side,” Nevin said. “So he has rounded up many of the Islamic fundamentalists, the militants, and there has been something of a relaxation. They have become more tolerant, in the government at least.”
President Pervez Musharaff has trod a fine line since Sept. 11, facilitating the U.S. military assault on Taliban and al Qu’da forces in Afghanistan, while maintaining an iron hand over Muslim fundamentalists in Pakistan.
Certain local electoral laws have recently been relaxed, even though the country remains a dictatorship. Musharaff has promised presidential elections in four years, but at least now, non-Muslim minorities can vote for Muslim candidates in local elections, whereas before they had to vote for a candidate of their own religion, and often there was none. Nevin added that the laws enshrining Islam as the state religion are often used to settle grudges: “a Muslim can use the laws to get back at a non-Muslim relative, have them thrown in jail.”
Islamabad’s Catholic Church stands on Kaghan Road, with Nevin’s house behind it. It resembles one of the many modern-designed 1970s churches in Ireland, a concrete construction that no one could describe as beautiful.
“The parishioners hate it,” Nevin said. “In the summer, it’s an oven.”
Islamabad in July reaches temperatures of 100 degrees or more.
Outside Nevin’s unlovely but unique little church stood a police officer with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, and a bandolier of shotgun shells. It is a common sight around the city, especially last weekend, during the Muslim festival of Eid, when, Nevin suggested, the authorities would be especially concerned with the activities of fundamentalists.
The murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was reported here in the Pakistani International News on page one, but few people seemed interested in conversing about the incident.
The city that Nevin has made his home and field of work is heavily Westernized but still appears poor. Roads are in the condition of Irish roads perhaps 20 years ago — potholes aplenty, but serviceable. Vehicles are in only slightly worse condition. Yellow taxicabs abound, but they are perhaps a quarter of the size of New York City’s cabs. That doesn’t stop drivers cramming them to capacity, and motorcycles speed past carrying as many as three passengers behind the driver.
A mere 50 miles away to the northeast as the crow flies is the province of Kashmir, where Pakistan and India stare each other down across one of the most contested stretches of territory in the world, a legacy left behind in 1947 by the departing British. This regional cold war has all the potential to go hot — around Islamabad there are monuments celebrating Pakistan’s nuclear prowess, “Saheen” (eagle) missiles, and carvings depicting where the first nuclear test was carried out in the south of the country. Almost as disconcerting to this reporter, was a battered storefront with the sign “Osama Enterprises” hanging outside.
On Saturday, the streets were empty and stores closed, because of Eid.
The holy day is a day to be spent with family, and a goat or cow must be slaughtered. Children ran through the streets flying kites, and teenage boys, yelling and cheering, played cricket. The only other activity to be seen was the demise of many goats in the corner of marketplaces, where pools of blood congealed in the gutters, and butchers attacked the carcasses with gusto, unmindful of the flies. Otherwise, the city was quiet.
On such days, Nevin said, he continues to go about his business, but usually stays at his house.
Nevin readily admitted that he misses Ireland, but he is able to return every two or three years. After nearly 30 years among Pakistanis, he readily admires them.
“They’re very industrious,” he said. “If they can work at all, they work hard. They’re spread across the world — England, America, Canada. A bit like the Irish.”