Sister of mercy for Pakistani Muslims
Peshawar — Conquering fear of Islamist bombs and kidnapping, Rubecca Pervez Bhatti races through Pakistan’s city of Peshawar on a motorbike, heading for another shift at a Christian mission hospital.
She is a 55-year-old Protestant mother of four. Yet she never goes anywhere without wearing the loose, baggy outfit of shalwar kamiz and covering her hair in the conservative Muslim tradition.
"I am really worried about the situation in Pakistan and everyday I pray to God to bring mercy on our country," she said.
Most of the some 200,000 Christians in North West Frontier Province, as elsewhere in Pakistan where they make up three percent of the population, are poorly educated. Even if they work, they are locked in a cycle of poverty.
Most are servants for wealthy Muslims, doing the gardening, cleaning out the toilets and other menial jobs.
Rubecca is unusual. She broke the mould.
But her faith is unfathomable to her Muslim patients, who ask her constantly why she does not convert and embrace Islam. She is used to it and has learnt just to smile quietly.
"It’s ok if my patients ask me every day ‘why don’t you convert as a Muslim’ but the peak was when my son was threatened to convert," she said.
"People stopped him, asked various questions and then threw a stone at him when he ran off home. Christians are oppressed in this country," she said.
The mission hospital where Rubecca works is in Dabgari, a densely populated area in the heart of Peshawar, the capital of the north where government troops have been locked in fighting with Taliban militants.
The 89-bed hospital stands in a walled compound, run by the Church of Pakistan, with a hundred-year-old domed chapel still used as a place of worship for hospital employees.
Rubecca, with the rest of the staff, goes to chapel for morning prayers before work begins. She is in charge of 20 nurses, all Christians except one.
"I have heard there are Taliban," is all she will say when asked about the rising tide of extremism.
"I’m not afraid of the situation in Peshawar."
She said nothing will deter her from working as a nurse, a job she started in 1972, or working at the mission hospital where she has been for 10 years.
Her husband lost his job as an engineer at a paper mill when the factory closed and apart from donations he earns officiating in church, the family are dependant on her salary.
"Militants target everyone, but our places are still safe. I think they have a particular agenda. Christians feel relatively safe in Peshawar," said Pervez Ghouri, head of the mission hospital.
What they feel instead is victimised and discriminated against in a Muslim state with controversial blasphemy laws.
"We are facing a lot of problems, particularly prejudice, and it’s increasing day by day," said Ghouri, sitting beside Rubecca.
The irony is that wealthy Pakistanis pack off their progeny to Christian schools, considered the most prestigious because of their association with the British colonial era.
"There are 15 Christian educational institutions in Peshawar," said Stephen Khokar, who sits on the board of education of the Peshawar Diocese.
"All these are considered prestigious institutions. Elite Muslims prefer to send their children to these schools," he said.
No matter that the local Christians cannot afford to send their children there and that the local Christian hospital is struggling for cash.
Rubecca was frightened by anti-Christian riots earlier this month that killed seven Christians in the Punjab village of Gojra when an angry mob of Muslims torched 40 houses and a church over allegations that pages of the Koran were desecrated.
"When extremists attack Christians, I always consider myself a second-class citizen and practically all Christians feel the same," she said.
"Jobs considered degrading and undignified are for Christians. Our children are talented, but they discourage us. It’s discrimination," she said.