December 25, 2023
Where once the streets of Jaranwala’s Christian colony would be decorated with tinsel, baubles, fairy lights, artificial firs and glittery stars in anticipation of Christmas, this year the same roads and neighborhoods are choked with bricks, piles of cement, planks and rebar as the survivors of the August 16 riots prioritize rebuilding their homes over everything else.
Though Christmas cheer has dimmed, some families are trying to brave through the trauma of the violence that broke out four months prior, where an incensed Muslim mob torched, ransacked and demolished 90 houses and 21 Churches over an alleged blasphemy incident. Chris Harry’s home is among the few that put up a small tree, not wanting to dampen their Christmas spirit, but it is difficult for the 8-year-old to process the horrors he witnessed this autumn.
“There is a fear in my heart,” he says when asked about what is different about Christmas this time. “Some of the children are scared that it might happen again.”
The ‘happiness’ is not the same either, he feels, struggling to find the words. Last year the streets were laden with Christmas décor and now they are bereft of those sights.
His sister Piya, however, is adamant on moving on from this tragedy. Christmas for her is the same as it was the year before, and the year before that, and so on.
“This has happened to everyone in every city at this point, there’s nothing new about it. But what is strange is that with this incident, no one is talking about it. Neither the pastors nor the police, even though this was the first time such an incident happened [here],” she opines, confident that things will slowly go back to normal as they do eventually.
Their mother, Komal (as mothers are often inclined to be) is far more cautious.
“We used to go all out before this, but now there is a deep-rooted terror. We even celebrated August 14 with full force, decorating the streets and our houses. Now we think about what wound up happening after August 14, God forbid something like it happen again [on Christmas],” she relays her fears, and the fears of her community as a whole.
Now, she adds, when unknown children wander into their streets during play, people stop them to ask them if they are Muslim.
“This never happened before. But now even the children, Muslim or Christian, are differentiating themselves from each other.”
The Government of Pakistan promised PKR 2 million in compensation for every family whose house was destroyed in the riots, and while some have received these funds, others like Zeba have been left in the lurch – there is no telling when her family will get their dues.
“This is all there is,” she gestures to the ruined façade of what still stands of her home. “We got a few things done with what our pastors were able to give us. We got enough repairs done to make it livable.”
Government compensation as well as financial support from the local community have helped partially rebuild the Saint John’s Church in Jaranwala, which was completely destroyed in the August 16 riots. With a refurbished interior, the children have been busy these past few days decorating the Church’s walls with shimmery tinsel for Christmas day service. As a traditional practice, the children also put up some of their resolutions for the new year – one anonymous writer yearns to no longer live in fear, while another wishes that Muslims be taught not to misbehave with Christian students.
The Church’s pastor, Father Khalid Mukhtar, understands his responsibility to lift up his community’s spirits in Monday’s sermons.
“We start preparing for Christmas festivities as soon as it’s December, where we decorate homes and the Churches are lit. We decorate whole streets and put up stars on our roofs. But we are not seeing all that this time,” he laments. “Some of the houses are still under construction, others are living in burnt homes, while those renting their places are skipping the décor. I didn’t see any stars either. We had celebrations prior to December 25, where the children would present tableaux and Christmas dramas to observe the birth of Christ. The Christmas spirit isn’t as strong as before, but people will still turn up for worship.”
Though this Christmas will pass under a pall of gloom, Jaranwala’s Christian community is not ready to fold to narratives of hate and violence.