The chants of “Hallelujah, Hallelujah” resonate from the Burt Hall field tucked away in an obscure part of Garhi Shahu, Lahore. The field is flooded with nearly 40,000 anxious Christians who have gathered from all over Pakistan for their annual convention.
The intensity of their devotion is evident in the curve of their bowed heads and the length of their arms raised towards the sky. All eyes are transfixed on the middle-aged Pastor Anwar Fazal who occupies the stage and is revered widely for his spiritual healing.
Support for the Christian movement — which has largely been dominated by tradition and the hierarchy of churches and historically never been able to connect with the local spiritual consciousness that was prevalent in Punjab — seems to be growing through a new wave of Pentecostal Christianity. The Pentecostal movement, in which believers receive gifts from the Holy Spirit and have spiritual experiences such as healing, is arguably the second largest denomination within Christianity. In Lahore, it has manifested itself through the multiplication in the number of independent churches over the past few years, with nearly 300 churches in the working class Kot-Lokpat area and twice that number in Youhanabad. Historically, however, the movement has been slow with the sole Sialkot convention that was started in 1904 by some Presbyterian missionaries and the first Pentecostal assembly which was held in 1952 by the largest Pentecostal organisation, Full Gospel Assemblies on Gurmangat road, Lahore. At the heart of this movement is a cultural globalisation, in which pastors such as Fazal seek to synthesise the folk and local spiritualities inherent in the Pakistani culture with the broader global religious principles.
Members of the Christian community during a prayer session at the annual convention. PHOTOS: MALIK SHAFIQ
Ten years ago people would not have recognised Anwar Fazal, one of the most popular televangelist preachers in Pakistan and the founder of the first 24-hour Christian television channel in the country, Isaac TV. He is also referred to as Pakistan’s Benny Hinn, the famed American televangelist known for his miracle crusades. The 45-year-old preacher also specialises in spiritual healings and holds a healing session every Wednesday in Lahore which is attended by thousands.
Fazal started out in the late 1990s from a shanty one-bedroom abode in Bahar colony, Lahore, and undertook several odd jobs before becoming a pastor. He set up the Eternal Life Ministries (ELM) of Pakistan, a non-profit ministry that blossomed from four members into thousands over a matter of few years. His sermons and ability to connect with the locals soon shot him to prominence which also resulted in an invitation by the former American president George W Bush for prayer before his second term election. Fazal has also been invited by Hinn to appear on his television channel on several occasions.
Isaac TV’s head office in Lahore with a staff of nearly 50 members. PHOTO: MALIK SHAFIQ
Even though similar attempts to bring Hinn to Pakistan have been unsuccessful due to security concerns, the trend of foreign televangelists such as Marlyn Hickey, the controversial Morris Cerrelo and Korean minister David Yonggi Cho visiting the country has had historical roots. Their visits coincided with a number of festivals and conventions being held across the country. For many of the ministries, this was a planned effort in an attempt to spiritually connect the local congregations to the global network of televangelism and link it financially to the vast donor network worldwide.
Anwar Fazal and his wife host Winning Souls, a live call-in show where they invite guests and take calls for prayer and discussion. PHOTO: MALIK SHAFIQ
Personally, Fazal sought to follow the footsteps of international televangelist preachers such as Billy Graham (spiritual advisor to several American presidents) who transcended the localised Christian gatherings to become a global icon. The first step towards achieving this was setting up of Isaac TV in 2003. Initially, the channel had to pay local cable operators to get it on air and even provide equipment in certain areas where a cable network was not available. Over time, it has switched to satellite and even started online streaming in 2010, which has allowed its reach to expand into the Middle East and South Asia.
Isaac TV is the first 24-hour Chrisitan channel in Pakistan. PHOTO: MALIK SHAFIQ
“Since this is Christian television for Christian people, we don’t want to expand it nationally. If we do, we may have to stop some of the initiatives we are running and it will also cost us more,” says the channel’s director Pastor Asif Nazir. “Also most religious channels are not meant for commercial use.” The channel which runs on donations from local and overseas sources has its head office in Lahore with a staff of nearly 50 people and several smaller bureaus in Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar and other cities.
Isaac TV has a wide-range of programming content tailored according to Fazal’s personality in the same manner as is done on channels owned by American televangelists Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen. For example, there is Winning Souls, a live call-in show and one of the most popular ones on the channel, which is hosted by Fazal and his wife Nida, who routinely invite guests and take calls for prayers and discussion. According to Nazir, the content has been developed around Fazal due to his popular support among the masses. Then there are also ELM shows, which host testimonials of prayers performed by Fazal along with translated shows from abroad.
The channel also hosts Eternal Life Ministries shows highlighting testimonials of prayers performed by Fazal. PHOTO: MALIK SHAFIQ
Connecting through music
Earlier this year, the channel also tried to broaden its evangelism through another initiative called Isaac’s Best Worshippers, a localised version of the American Idol singing competition. The show aimed at promoting aspiring Christian singers from the region and providing them with an avenue of expression. It featured nearly 1200 participants and the top ten contestants were awarded Rs5,000. The top three winners were also given Rs25,000, Rs50,000 and Rs100,000 as prize money. “Earlier we had gospel albums but those were recorded by bigger names so no one from an average background was given an opportunity,” says Nazir. “This was our trial show and now we want to take this to every city including Dubai.”
Anwar Fazal is widely revered in the Christian community as a spiritual healer. PHOTO: MALIK SHAFIQ
Yousuf Nawab, an evangelist in the early 1970s and one of the judges on Isaac’s Best Worshippers now, is no stranger to the role of music in making religion accessible to the masses. After dedicating his life to missionary work, Nawab toured the entire country and visited countless large and small congregations. What set his work apart, however, was his contribution as a popular music producer. By 1973, Nawab helped produce a cassette with Ernest Mall, a popular Pakistani-American gospel singer under the banner of Full Gospel Assemblies of Pakistan. The gospel music produced during that period was inspired by the contemporary film music and is said to be a turning point for the local Christian movement. The traditional churches would also go on to set up the Workshop Audio Visual Education (WAVES) studio in Lahore which infused religious melodies with much of the local popular music influences. Renowned names such as Ghulam Abbas, Mehnaz, Afshan, Turanam Naz, Mehdi Hassan and others also sang gospel songs which played on a local radio channel and were distributed at religious gatherings at various remote villages.
Anwar Fazal performing a healing — one of the key principles of the Pentecostal movement in Christianity. PHOTO: MALIK SHAFIQ
“Earlier, songs were limited to the church but a new trend began with these recordings. They were distributed in the remotest of areas, where they were sold for a minimal price and some were even copied,” recalls Nawab who has produced over 14,000 songs.
Daim Gill,the 19-year-old upcoming singer and winner of the current season of Isaac’s Best Worshipper, shares the same opinion. “The channel has really awakened our community since it runs in every household. Even people who don’t go to church watch it,” he says. “It has actually developed a unique culture which is why you see this increase in the number of churches and congregations.”
Nearly 40,000 Christians gathered from all over the country to attend the annual congregation at Bert Hall field, Lahore. PHOTO: MALIK SHAFIQ
Local roots, global movement
There has been little research around Christians in Pakistan. However, one of the latest books on the subject, The Unconquered People: The liberation journey of the oppressed caste, by scholar John O’ Brien provides a historical and ethnographic linkage for the community known as Chandala in classic Brahmanic literature and commonly referred to as Chuhras or sweepers during colonial rule. Brien argues that the Christian identity has become more fluid due to the structural changes in terms of how cities and the state have developed over the decade. Increasing globalisation and the advent of modern inventions such as television and the internet has also enabled the use of cultural tools such as poetry and music to make religion accessible at the grassroots level.
Gill’s own musical ambitions have now been connected to this growing Christian movement since it has provided him with an avenue like never before. The rise of a more adaptive and open religious outlet catered to Christians, that is inspired by American and Korean televangelism, is projecting itself in a Pakistani form but at the same time remains insulated from Pakistan’s mainstream. This is a sign of an impending local movement with global outreach that caters to the outcasts and fringes of society but remains largely ignored in our typical daily lives.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 4th, 2014.
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