KASHMIR: Earthquake Update - One Year On

After helping victims of last years earthquake survive the harsh winter, Open Doors, through local partner organizations, is pursuing long-term efforts to assist recovery in the Pakistani-controlled administrative sub-region known as Azad Kashmir.

Collaborating with local Muslims, Christian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) plan to open a hospital and schools in Azad Kashmir. The NGOs anticipate that their efforts will help rebuild the community and eradicate commonly held stereotypes that cast Christians in a negative light in Islamic nations.

Run by Muslim extremists, Azad Kashmir has traditionally been closed to Christians. Christian missionaries were kicked out in the 1970s, and in recent years several local believers were martyred. Unable to buy property or build churches, the Christian community in the area has been forced to keep a low profile.

Last year's earthquake provided Pakistani Christians with an opportunity to enter the region and help the victims rebuild their lives. One local Christian NGO leader shared how his organization made its long-term aims transparent to both the government and local communities from the start of its work. "Right in the beginning, we went to the top government officials, to share with them that the reason that we are going to Kashmir is because this is a national tragedy," the NGO leader said. "We then went to the community leaders in Kashmir and shared with them that we wanted to come with a long-term plan to help rebuild the lives of the people," the Christian leader continued. "They very openly welcomed that and gave us freedom for the first time to go freely into Kashmir."

In the wake of the earthquake that left 88,000 dead and over 100,000 injured, it was feared that last year's mountain winter would bring a new wave of deaths to those without adequate shelter. Through its South Asia Christian partners, Open Doors provided 26 truck-loads of food and supplies to help earthquake victims survive the cold weather. The aid included hundreds of tents as well as corrugated steel sheets used by approximately 100 families to build new homes.

With the local government hospital in ruins, Christian NGOs also established a make-shift tent hospital that initially treated 100 patients each day. It is the only hospital serving at least 80,000 people in the area. Pakistani Christian volunteers helped construct shock-proof hospital buildings replacing the temporary hospital tents that had suffered during the harsh winter. Strong winds had ripped up the dispensary tent, and the doctors' quarters had collapsed three times under the weight of snow. The new men's and women's wards, and a new operation theatre, dispensary and outpatient treatment centre opened in September.

Open Doors' partners are now focusing efforts on building four schools in the earthquake-affected areas. More than 65 percent of government-run schools in Azad Kashmir were destroyed in the 7.6-magnitude earthquake. Christian NGOs hope to meet this need by establishing four elementary and middle schools. In mid-June NGO leaders began discussions with local communities in Azad Kashmir about founding two of the schools. At one elementary school last week, Christian volunteers distributed backpacks and school supplies to 70 children between the ages of five and 11. Christian NGOs have also promised to build two rooms for the school to replace the hot stuffy tent that the students have been meeting in since their building collapsed in the earthquake.

In the long run, the Christian NGOs envision graduates of their schools reinvesting in efforts to improve the community. They also believe the schools will help breed tolerance between religions. "The schools will bring interfaith harmony and remove the suspicion and doubt that usually is spread through extremism," one Christian commented.

"We hope that when Muslims start living side by side they will understand who Christians are. And the Christians by the same token will be able to share the love and compassion of Christ by their presence in that area." Interfaith efforts carry increasing importance as extremist Muslim relief organizations threaten to re-radicalize Kashmir. International monitors have expressed concern over the large number of outlawed terrorist organizations participating in the earthquake relief effort. Many of these have reportedly focused on building Islamic religious schools and have spoken out against non-Muslim NGO's starting schools in the area.

Local Muslims, however, believe that Christian relief workers have been successful in breaking down negative stereotypes between religions. Sharing a meal with volunteer staff at the new hospital facility, one Muslim teacher expressed the change that has taken place in his community. "This is the first time that we have ever had Christians in this part of Kashmir," the teacher commented. "It's wonderful to see that they are not so different from us. Whether you're a Christian or a Muslim, you are still human.

"The important thing about being a human is having a heart for other humans, hurting for others when they hurt," the teacher added, quoting loosely from Pakistani poet and philosopher Allam Mohammed Iqbal. "The Christians have come here and hurt for us. If, heaven-forbid, anything would ever happen to them, we would reach out and help them in return."

Source: Open Doors USA

Sunday, November 26, 2006   printer friendly version | 8981 reads