Christmas preparations in Pakistan

This gallery comprises of images of Christmas celebrations from around different cities of Pakistan.

Hyderabad: Sain Bonaventure School students busy in their religious rituals at Saint Xavier Church in connection with Christmas celebration.

A young girl decorating the Thomson Cathedral Church.

Christian busy in religious rituals during Christmas eve at a church in Lahore.

Visitors look at model of Santa Claus displayed at a local hotel ahead of Christmas celebrations

Members of Christian community performing religious rituals as they celebrate Christmas at a local church in Faisalabad.

Christians busy in their religious rituals during special service in connection with upcoming Christmas celebrations at Cathedral Church.

Pakistani Christian youths celebrate ahead of Christmas as they stand atop a truck on their way to Karachi.

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Church in South Waziristan ready to celebrate Christmas

“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.” - File Photo

SOUTH WAZIRISTAN: 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, Shia 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 US 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.

“It was a longstanding demand of the community to be given a proper space,” Col. Atif Ali, a military officer, told Reuters during a rare trip to the region arranged by the military.

Many of the Christians work for the army in clerical or domestic positions. So far, they have been sheltered from the bombings, raids and drone strikes, violence that rocks the region on an almost daily basis.

Less than 100 miles away lies North Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan and one of the last areas controlled by the Pakistani Taliban.

The United States has repeatedly urged Pakistan to launch an operation against militants sheltered there including remnants of Al Qaeda and Pakistani groups targeting the nation’s minorities.

Pakistan says it is doing everything it can to fight the militancy and needs to consolidate the campaign in South Waziristan before opening a new front.

Freshly painted:

The small blue and white church building has been freshly painted and the main hall covered in new ceramic tiles. A small chandelier hangs from the ceiling and a cloth spread over the altar reads: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

The church’s gratitude to the army is expressed in a sign outside thanking Ali for his help with the renovation.

“Now it is much easier and convenient for them to worship.

The new building is close to their homes. They are very happy with us,” he said.

While Christians elsewhere in the country are lowering their profile, community members here mix freely with their Muslim neighbours. Their children attend the same schools and neighbours go to each others’ weddings and funerals.

When five Christians from Waziristan were kidnapped by the Taliban on their way to the plains of Punjab in 2009, pressure from the army and the community helped free them.

“There are lots of Muslims in our neighbourhood,” said 30-year-old Saleem Masih, another church helper. “We take part in each other’s happiness and sorrow. Christmas is coming. You’ll see the Muslims will join us.”

Relations between Pakistan’s Christians and Muslims are not always so harmonious.

Rimsha Masih, a teenage Christian girl, was accused of blasphemy in Islamabad earlier this year in a case that underlined the climate of fear and suspicion that minorities face.

Masih was eventually cleared of the charges, but many of her neighbours fled their homes and her family is still in hiding.

Nine Christians were killed after a similar accusation in 2009 and mobs frequently lynch anyone accused of blasphemy before they can get to court.

That’s one reason why Christians in South Waziristan say they feel safer in their army base than living in Pakistan’s capital, where they are vulnerable to accusations from anyone who covets their homes or businesses.

But the main reason, says pastor Alam, is their trust in their neighbors, ordinary Muslims who are also living under the shadow of war.

“If there is one person who kills, there are also so many who protect. We couldn’t live here if Muslims didn’t give us protection,” said Alam. “Don’t forget: where there is bad, there is always good also.”

Mandela to spend Christmas in hospital

JOHANNESBURG: Ailing icon Nelson Mandela will spend Christmas Day in hospital, the South African government said on Monday, dashing hopes for a festive end to his longest stay in care since being released from prison in 1990.

“Former president Nelson Mandela will spend Christmas Day in hospital, his doctors have confirmed today, on 24 December 2012,” the presidency said in a statement.

The 94-year-old Nobel Peace laureate and South Africa’s first black post-apartheid president, was admitted to a Pretoria hospital on December 8. He has been treated there for a recurrent lung infection and had surgery to remove gallstones.

In a statement President Jacob Zuma said his predecessor “continues to respond to treatment”.

“Knowledge of the love and support of his people keeps him strong,” Zuma said.

“We urge all South Africans to keep Tata (father) uppermost in their thoughts at every place of worship or entertainment tomorrow on Christmas Day, and throughout the festive season.

“We also humbly invite all freedom loving people around the world to pray for him. He is an ardent fighter and will recover from this episode with all our support,” Zuma said.

There was no indication of when he might be discharged.

“He remains in hospital, recovering,” presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj told AFP on Monday.

“I can’t say when he will be discharged, doctors will make that decision.”

Only limited details of Mandela’s condition have been made public by the South African government, which has repeatedly called on the public to respect the former president’s privacy.

Before his retirement in 2004 Mandela used to host a Christmas feast in his home village of Qunu for impoverished children, a highlight for many.

Since retiring from public life, Christmas has been a more low-key affair, spent with family. Neither tradition will be repeated this year.

While many South Africans have resigned themselves to the idea of life without the country’s most respected citizen, he remains highly esteemed and was the subject of many prayers.

On Monday churchgoers at the renowned Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto sent him messages of love and support after mass.

Others, including local celebrities, have taken to social networking sites to wish Madiba, the clan name he is fondly known by, a speedy recovery.

“Thinking of Madiba tonight, prayers that he gets well soon just in time for Christmas,” wrote radio and television personality Jeannie D.

Mandela, who became South Africa’s first black president after the country’s first all-race elections in 1994, has a long history of lung problems.

He contracted tuberculosis, a disease which killed his father, while in jail as a political prisoner.

The former statesman was later hospitalised for an acute respiratory infection in January 2011, when he was held for two nights.

Mandela was last seen in public in 2010, clad in a scarf during the closing ceremony of the FIFA World Cup, when he was wheeled into the stadium in a golf cart.

In May, footage of a smiling, grey-haired Madiba seated on a couch, was shown on television when he was visited by ruling ANC leaders to present him with a symbolic flame to mark the party’s 100 years. Mandela stepped down in 1999 after serving one term as president.