‘Even if we must die, we remain faithful to our Lord’
JAN-MATTHIJS VAN LEEUWEN | MARCH 10, 2023
Mehtab Shahbaz (29) is from Pakistan. He is studying at the TU Kampen|Utrecht for a year and sees this as a special opportunity to draw attention to the persecution of Christians in his country.
What brings you to the Netherlands?
‘My name “Mehtab” means “moon”, both in Urdu and Persian, two important languages in Pakistan. The name “moon” expresses nicely what I see as my mission: spreading the Light of the Gospel in places of darkness. Just as the moon does not shed its own light, but the light of the sun, so I don’t shine myself, pass on the light of Christ.
I work with young people, a very vulnerable group in the church of Pakistan. The enemies of the Gospel often consciously target their arrows on Christian young people. They are often invited to discuss issues about religion and sacred books but these are not open conversations. Such discussions are intended to make them say something wrong so that the youngsters can be indicted. Officially, minorities in Pakistan are protected, but the infamous Article 295 a-c of the Penal Code prohibits blasphemy, insulting the prophet and the holy books. If you say something wrong, they can arrest you. Young people are therefore very afraid. It is my desire and calling to encourage and equip young people. That is why I am very grateful that De Verre Naasten has made it possible for me to deepen my knowledge.’
Can you tell us what it means to be persecuted in Pakistan?
‘There are two sides to this: the legal side of the regulations and the pressure from the environment, especially from fanatical activists. I have already mentioned that, officially, Christians and other religious minorities are protected. Yet the law also makes life difficult for us. The law prescribes that our president and prime minister have to be Muslim, which makes us second-class citizens. Another thing is the so-called quota system in education. In schools, only four out of fifty students are allowed to be from ethnic or religious minorities. Because of this, our young people have far less access to education. But the pressure in everyday life is felt the most: you are passed over for a job, for renting a house. I have already mentioned the threat of an indictment and arrest. Christians are only a small minority and many live in poverty. Truly heart-breaking are the attacks on young people or even young children. Girls are persuaded to do certain things in front of a camera, which then appears on social media. We live in a “shame culture”, so I don’t need to explain to you that the lives of such girls have been destroyed. With boys, they try it mainly with drink and drugs. It is exactly because these young people are already under such pressure that they are often more susceptible to these temptations.’
Let me tell you the story of my calling. As a child – I must have been about eleven or twelve years old – God called me, literally. I heard a voice call my name: “Mehtab, Mehtab.” I didn’t see anyone and carried on playing, but that voice sounded again: “Mehtab!” Because I didn’t know who was calling me, I went to my mother She had just read the story of Samuel and said it was possible that the Lord was calling me. When I heard the voice again, I said: “Yes Lord, here I am. I want to serve you.” That calling was confirmed most powerfully on the most dramatic day of my life: March 15, 2015. We had a festive church service on Sunday because I had just completed university. Then bombs exploded in our church and other churches in the city and people died or were seriously injured. I lost many loved ones but I was not injured and neither was my family. After a long chaotic Sunday, full of fear and emotions, we eventually managed to find each other. I remember well that we finally sat down together for the meal that evening. My father requested silence so he could pray, as he always did, but I was angry. “Why should we pray?” I snapped at him. “Look at what God has let happen today. It is dangerous to serve this God. Where is his protection?” My father was quiet for a long time. Then he said: “Let us ask God Himself. I suggest that we open the Bible and start to read where it happens to open. Perhaps the Lord will speak that way.” The part my father then read at was John 20: Jesus’ disciples are afraid and confused and suddenly Jesus is in their midst. He blows on them and says: “Peace. My peace I give you…” That changed my heart. Since then I have had God’s peace in my heart, but I am also a witness to that peace.
To get back to your question: We are called for peace. Jesus tells us: “Pray for those who persecute you.” That is why I remain in discussion. I remind myself: God’s love is also for those other people, the fanatical, the dangerous.’
How do you manage to keep your faith while under such pressure? What is the secretof the church in Pakistan?
‘I once visited a village where the church members came to me to complain about their fate. I challenged them by saying: “If you want a better life and if you want to get work, you know what you have to do. Become a Muslim and your problems will be over!” But they were very clear on that point: “That never! Even if we have to die, we remain faithful to our Lord! He’s our life.” That’s because in Pakistan your belief is your identity. Faith is not just a choice, something you may or may not commit to. No, you are a Christian in the same way that you are a man or a woman. There is also a big disadvantage to this because this means that your faith is also in your passport. This makes discrimination so much easier.
‘In Pakistan your faith is your identity’
What can Dutch Christians learn from the church in Pakistan?
For the first time in this conversation, Mehtab hesitates. He indicates that he has only been in the Netherlands for a few months. That he is a guest and perhaps not the first to comment on this.
‘To be honest, I have encountered a lot of distrust in the Netherlands. People think I have come here to enjoy the good life. In churches, too, some people tend to relativise my story. They then start talking about Muslims in India who also have a hard time. I sometimes long for a greater sense of kinship. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and I am telling you how your family in Pakistan is keeping. Unity and connection are important themes, in any case. I am a pastor in the United Church of Pakistan. That is a church association where Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians meet. Our testimony to the outside world is being weakened by the divisions among Christians. Precisely because we are a minority, because we are being oppressed, we want to be both united and faithful to our Lord. My message for the Church in Netherlands is to be one. Taking the example from Pakistan, as we have left our differences to be one voice fulfilling the prayer of Jesus in John 17. In Pakistan we have learned how to be church with hardly any resources. Our churches are poor, our people often have no or little education. Yet we persevere and remain faithful, looking for all kinds of ways to share God’s peace and let His light shine.’
Christian Persecution Ranking List 2023
1 North Korea
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About the author
JAN-MATTHJS VAN LEEUWEN
Jan-Matthijs van Leeuwen has been a church minister in the GKv, a missionary/teacher and now works for De Verre Naasten.