Season to be jolly: A Christmas day in Chak Bethlehem

Chak 2-GD was established by the Church Mission Society 99 years ago

Angelina, her sister and their cousin pose for a picture with their dolls in Chak 2-GD Bethlehem. PHOTO: SARAH ELEAZAR/EXPRESS

LAHORE: The red-brick church tower of Chak 2-GD Bethlehem casts a long shadow over a sprawl of small mud houses ensconced between fields and cattle sheds in Renala Khurd. There is a trampoline, a merry-go-round and other carnival rides in the village square where children, dressed in their Christmas finery, run around laughing and wishing everyone who passes by a merry Christmas.

“Please tell baba I am going to name my dolly Amna,” eight-year-old Angelina piped before she ran off to show her Christmas presents to her friends. Angelina and her seven-year-old sister have not met their father Mushtaq Bhatti since he was arrested seven years ago for his involvement in a village brawl that turned violent.

On Saturday, some members of Redemption Pakistan, an NGO working with prisoners, visited Chak 2-GD Bethlehem to celebrate holiday cheer with Bhatti’s family. The children were told that their father had sent them presents and that he missed them very much. Standing at a corner of the village square, Bhatti’s elderly mother looked at the children with tears in her eyes.

“Mushtaq was working on the church tower when some of the men told him that his father’s rivals had attacked him. He ran to save his father and jumped into the fray. An elderly man got stabbed,” she says. “The children were only babies when he was taken away,” she says.

The elders of the village sit on charpoys nearby and lament the sorry state of affairs that is steadily driving away the village’s youth towards neighbouring towns and cities. “The population of this village is half of what it was 50 years ago,” Lumberdar Zafar Iqbal says.

Bethlehem, named after the town Jesus Christ was born in, was among the canal colonies established by the Church Mission Society. Sharing the village’s history, Iqbal says, Lady Sarkar, a Christian missionary, established the village 99 years ago.

There is a lack of job opportunities and development in the area, but one of the biggest reasons why people have increasingly opted to move away is a lack of educational opportunities, he says.

Shamaoon Masih, who runs a small first-aid clinic, recalls that Father James of the Renala Khurd catholic diocese had started the St John’s High School some 20 years ago. “Muslim students from neighbouring villages would study with us because it was one of the best schools in the area.” That school shut down some seven or eight years ago land-grab pressure.

The derelict building stands next to the church. “We have asked the Church of Pakistan to take it over…we have the building, we just need someone to run it.”

Pastor Kars, who took over the church in Bethlehem five months ago, says the Lahore diocese has not expressed interest in taking over the school despite repeated requests.

The church committee, a group of seven to eight elders elected each year, organises a week-long sports tournament for the youth starting December 26 each year. Four teams kicked off the football tournament on Saturday. The young men of the village will battle it out in kabaddi, football, athletics and cricket matches in the days leading up to the new year.

“These are some of the activities we try to engage our youth in, but we know they too, will leave the village one day,” the elderly lumberdar says mournfully.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 28th, 2015.



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