Pandemic forces a poor Christian minority to cancel display that normally draws thousands of Pakistanis

Christmas lights glow faintly on Dec. 23, 2020, in a poor Christian neighborhood of Islamabad, Pakistan, where the annual crowded Nativity festival has been canceled because of the coronavirus. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Pamela Constable

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – There is no winter wonderland of snowmen and reindeer to obscure the stream full of trash. There is no bower of lights forming an archway into the maze of alleys, no tent erected in the Presbyterian church’s courtyard so families can watch the annual Nativity pageant.

For the first time in memory, the poor Christian community known as French Colony here in Pakistan’s capital is not staging the famous Christmas display that normally draws thousands of visitors and provides a rare chance for members of this struggling religious minority to showcase their creativity and celebrate their faith.

“People here are having a hard time. Many have lost their jobs due to the virus. The Christmas spirit is still here, but the pockets are empty,” said Sohaib Khan, 31, a driver. As he spoke in a narrow alley, children rushed by laughing and adults squeezed past. Only a few people were wearing masks.

As a second wave of coronavirus infections sweeps Pakistan this month after an extended lull, officials have issued strong warnings to the public to take extra health precautions and minimize social activities. Nationwide, the death toll from the virus has passed 9,500, according to official statistics. A total of 463,000 cases have been reported, and more than 2,000 are being added daily.

In this Muslim-majority nation of about 210 million, only 2% of the population is Christian, and Muslim communities have borne the brunt of the virus. But last week health authorities issued specific instructions for communities observing Christmas, advising people to stay home, curtail church services and cancel public activities that draw outside visitors.

The advisory from the National Command and Operations Center, a civilian and military task force that coordinates efforts to combat covid-19, called Christmas celebrations a “major challenge” that could “amplify the transmission of the virus” and disrupt the country’s response capacity.

Christians historically have played a major role in developing Pakistan’s education system and have built majestic urban cathedrals. But they have met with rising persecution in recent years as Muslim sentiment has radicalized. Some Christians have faced accusations of blasphemy against Islam, a capital crime, and been lynched or jailed for life.

Many live in rundown but tightknit urban enclaves such as French Colony, working at menial jobs as cleaners, drivers and cooks. Christmas is the highlight of their year, and they spend weeks preparing elaborate outdoor displays. On Christmas Eve, the scenes are thronged by television crews, VIP officials and thousands of visitors.

But this year brought little of that excitement. By Wednesday, only a few strings of lights had been hung from churches and rooftops in French Colony. In the twisting alleys, vendors had set up tables of Christmas ornaments, but there was little holiday buzz. And although many residents were not wearing masks, they said they were aware of the danger and trying to reduce the risk of catching or spreading the virus.

Hassan Raza, 32, shows a Nativity display to his son, Arham, in their Christian community of Islamabad, Pakistan, on Dec. 24, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Pamela Constable

“We like to hug at Christmas, but this year we can’t,” said Binish Aini, 38, a mother of four. “The government said we should avoid bringing a rush of people, and we want to obey, but it’s not easy to keep our kids from playing with each other outside. We believe God will protect us, but it’s also up to the authorities.”

The worst impact of the virus for this community has been economic. Few residents said they knew anyone who had become seriously ill from covid-19, but everyone knew someone who had lost a job.

Pervaiz Jan, 32, was laid off from his job with a delivery company soon after the virus hit Pakistan in March. On Wednesday, he set up a sidewalk table with tiny reindeer and Christmas tree ornaments, but he made few sales.

“People have less money to spend, and I think they are afraid to celebrate openly,” Jan said. “I don’t see many happy faces.”

By the next day, Christmas Eve, the mood had picked up. More fairy lights had been strung up after dark, and holiday music boomed from amplifiers. But the traditional highlight of the season – the panorama of handcrafted angels, animals and snow-covered forests – was not there. Below the sloping field where it had always been staged, a debris-choked stream was visible.

Trying to make up for the disappointment, community leaders put together a more modest show, creating a Nativity scene with cardboard farm animals resting on straw and cardboard angels hanging from branches. As night deepened, it became clear that few outside visitors were coming, and local families began bringing their children to see the display.

“Everyone is scared of the virus, and nobody wants to go out in crowds, but our country has suffered much less than other parts of the world,” said Eman Faiz, the pastor of a small Pentecostal church in the community. “God has spared us to a great extent, and we feel especially blessed.”

Kamran James, a longtime organizer of the Christmas display, said that last year’s spectacle drew record numbers of visitors from many faiths. This year, he said, “we are doing things in a more limited, careful way. But we are still celebrating the birth of the King of Kings. He is the light, and that matters even more than our lives.”

 

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