Pakistan’s loneliest church celebrates Christmas in Taliban territory
This Christmas, Pastor Nazir Alam will stoke up a fire, lay a fresh cloth on the altar and welcome parishioners as they arrive at his church in Waziristan, a Pakistani tribal area known as an al-Qaeda haven.
“The lights are all up, and the choir boys are ready. The church is looking its best,” said 60-year-old Alam, a former missionary who has celebrated his last ten Christmases there. “There’s not much left to do but to pray and rejoice.”
Outsiders might see little cause for joy. Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for minorities, says London-based watchdog Minority Rights Group International. Christians, Shiite Muslims and Ahmadis are victims of a rising tide of deadly attacks.
But Alam’s church, and the homes of most of his 200 parishioners, are nestled inside a Pakistani army base in South Waziristan, a mountainous region that was a hotbed of militancy until a military offensive in 2009.
“When the U.S. went into Kabul, things became bad for everyone. But we are safe here. The army protects us,” says Shaan Masih, who helps clean the church and likes to play the drums and sing carols.
For two decades, the church was little more than a room and the tiny community worshipped there under light protection. In 2009, the army set up a base in South Waziristan as part of the offensive against the insurgency and invited the church inside.