KARACHI: Two men in black turbans peruse the shelves, flipping through an Urdu book on the life of Jesus, before leaving the shop empty-handed.
"Everyone is welcome here, even if they just come out of curiosity," smiles Sister Daniela Baronchelli, the 82-year-old Italian nun who runs the small bookstore in the heart of Saddar. "It is our way of spreading tolerance and harmony."
Located close to a famous nihari shop on the crowded Syedna Burhanuddin Road - once known as Mansfield Road - the Daughters of St Paul Bookshop has no signboard announcing its presence. Instead, the pictures and books on display are the sole indication of what Sister Daniela claims is the only such shop for Catholic Christians in the area.
However, adherents of any faith can walk into the shop and browse through the books, documents, rosaries, pictures, statues, DVDs and audio tapes that are housed within.
"The most treasured items in the store are the copies of the Holy Bible," explains Sister Daniela. "The English versions are brought from India, while the Urdu translations are printed here."
Run by a Roman Catholic order for women called the Daughters of St Paul, the bookshop is celebrating its 50th year in the city this year. The nuns have spent most of their time here in peace, but as tensions rise between Muslims and non-Muslims abroad and militants attack schools and places of worship in the country, Sister Daniela has become increasingly worried.
"We are all suffering," she says. "The militants have no religion." According to Sister Daniela, people chalked anti-militancy slogans on the blue shutters of the store after the Peshawar school massacre in December 2014.
"When there are strikes or a bad law and order situation in the area, we shut the shop down immediately," she says, explaining the precautions they take. "We have an emergency backdoor too."
In 2005, the bookshop was raided by the police, who confiscated the books and audio tapes. Luckily, they soon returned the material they had taken.
Sister Daniela, who hails from Farfengo, Italy, decided to dedicate her life to Christianity when she was 20. She spent years becoming a nun in Rome, before going to Africa as a missionary. Thirty-five years ago, she moved to Pakistan, spending 30 years in Lahore before arriving in Karachi.
Another Italian nun, Sister Agnes, helps her with the customers in the shop, which is open for a while twice a day, in the morning and the afternoon. Young girls from the area also lend a hand, supporting Sister Daniela's aim of strengthening the Christian community.
Sister Daniela admits that when she was being posted to Pakistan, she had not wanted to come. "I was not used to Muslim culture and traditions," she explains. "The change was difficult at first, but now it feels like home." The bookshop especially is a source of happiness for her. "It is like a temple to me," she smiles. "However difficult the situation becomes for us here, I won't leave."
Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd, 2015.
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