Would anybody want to visit such a place? Well, if you go, you may want to stay, realizing you’ll need a lot of time to unravel the many mixed messages.
The 2011 arrest of CIA operative Raymond Davis, the subsequent killing of Osama Bin Laden and the recent killing of 26 Pakistani soldiers by a U.S. drone attack have strained Pakistani-American relations to the breaking point. Yet when Americans walk the streets of a massive city like Lahore, they’re likely to be warmly welcomed, often in fluent English.
“Americans, ah, we love Americans,” Pakistanis say frequently. But they often grin and add, “It’s your government we hate.”
The welcome is sincere, but look beyond your first impressions and you’re likely to spot bullet holes in homes of persecuted Christians or Muslim minorities. Mixed messages indeed.
Campus of clarity
Then again, if you find your way to the campus of Forman Christian College, you will discover amid this sea of mixed messages an island of civility, excellence, comity and clarity. From this perch you may even peer into a future of peace.
Forman’s 108-acre campus educates 6,000 students, about half of whom study on the college level (the equivalent of grades 11 and 12 in the U.S.). Most of the rest study on the university level in pursuit of bachelor’s degrees, with a handful pursuing more advanced degrees. Most members of the university community are Muslim, but about 20 percent of the students, 30 percent of the faculty and most of the school’s administrators are Christian.
Lahore Mission College was founded in 1864 by Charles Forman, a Presbyterian missionary from the U.S. The school’s name was changed 30 years later to honor its founder. By 1915, enrollment reached 600 students.
The school was nationalized by the Pakistani government in 1972, changing its name to Government F C College. Over the next three decades it became a hotbed of radicalism wherein student groups controlled everything — even to the point of dictating administrative and faculty appointments. Classes typically started 15 minutes late and ended 10 minutes early. Accountability was nil.
In the 1990s, the Pakistani government outlawed such student groups nationwide. In 2003, it denationalized the school, returning control to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The faculty and alumni — then mostly Muslim — voted overwhelmingly to reclaim their school’s former name and to seek out an American Christian to lead it in the new century, despite the post-9/11 atmosphere of Muslim-Christian tension.
The school’s transition was negotiated on behalf of the PC(USA) by former GAC Executive Director David Stoner. The school’s new board convinced Peter Armacost, the recently retired president of PC(USA)-related Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., to come out of retirement to lead the school as its rector (a title equivalent to president). He will retire from Forman Christian at the end of this school year.
Leader of impact
The accomplishments of Armacost’s eight years have been breathtaking. He led the faculty through a complete transformation from the British system — “lectures … memorization … regurgitation” as Dean of Students Cheryl Burke summarizes — to an American-style baccalaureate program conducted on a semester schedule and grounded in the liberal arts. Instead of straight lectures, the students engage in dialogue with each other and their professors. Their grades are based not just on a final exam but also on quizzes, research papers, scientific experiments and their participation in class discussions. Instead of taking classes just in their major, they now take two years of general courses in other fields prior to focusing on their major.
Upon his arrival, Armacost also introduced a Christian studies department, but the head of Islamic studies suggested one department for both. Soon professors were freely teaching the beliefs of their respective faiths — on a level playing field of mutual respect and intellectual engagement.
The school has promoted advanced education of its existing and incoming faculty. Today, of the 188 professors teaching in the university, 99 have earned have earned doctorates.. In the science department 30 of 33 professors have the Ph.D. This compares to the national average in universities of just 22 percent. Lubnah Amer, an assistant professor of chemistry, earned her doctorate with grants secured with Forman’s help. “FCC funded all the fees for my Ph.D. I thought it was not possible for me to do it, so I owe so much to FCC,” she said.
Christy Munir, Former chair of the Chemistry Department of Quid-i-Azim— joined the administration as principal of the college after Armacost’s arrival.
“We are anti-terrorists,” Munir said. “We are changing people through education rather than by war. … We are the best because we are a mission institution.”
Munir urged Presbyterians in the U.S. to come see Forman Christian College in action and to try to open other institutions like it in Pakistan. “Through our character, through our values, it impresses people that we are different,” he said.
The university has rebuilt a phenomenal reputation, said Burke, who was recruited by Armacost from Peachtree Church in Atlanta. It doesn’t hurt that the school’s alumni include a president of the U.N. Security Council, a prime minister of India and, for Pakistan, two presidents, a prime minister, the first chief justice, an attorney general and a foreign minister.
Robert Johnson, who served three years early in Armacost’s tenure as dean of the chapel, rejoined the college’s work this past spring as president of Friends of Forman, a U.S. support arm of the school.
“You would be hard pressed to find a university anywhere in the world that has impacted its country like Forman,” Johnson said.
Forman’s reformation has also made a huge impact on the Christian minority in the country. Christian student enrollment has grown from 20 in 2004 to 830 today. Many of those students are the first members of their families to attend university.
Christian students testify to the impact the school has made on them. They say they have gained both a great academic education and a deep understanding of their faith at Forman.
Many Christian students come from impoverished communities where their parents had little education. One young woman told of a home village where there is no church, so the Christians there meet in small groups that a pastor visits from time to time. “Every house is a house of worship,” she said.
One young man said he comes from a city where there are about 100 Christians, all of them “poor brickmakers,” whereas the more educated Muslims are doctors, teachers and the like. Happily the two faith groups get along in his town, he said.
Another Christian student appreciates the school’s impact on non-Christians. “Muslims’ mindsets toward Christians have been changed here. They had heard so much bad stuff about us before, but here they learn Christian thought and ethics, and they are impressed by that. They ask lots of questions.”
One of the Muslim students affirmed that impact. Quoting the school’s motto, he said, “‘By love serve one another.’ I like that a lot. Love is the only way to solve our problems. If I wasn’t at Forman, I’d probably be a commander in the Taliban. I believe that I’m something now and I was nothing before coming to Forman.”
Burke said the school provides an environment that is “safe for not only Christians, but for other minorities, including Muslim minorities.”
Everyone at Forman seems convinced of the need for education. As one student said, “It’s the Muslims that don’t understand our faith that so easily get manipulated into becoming violent.”
Abdul Ghani, a former imam and now chair of the religious studies department, also works with the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, an NGO based in Washington. “We are trying to promote critical thinking in students,” he said. “We need an understanding of religion … to be able to differentiate between bad ideas and good ideas, bad religion and good religion.”
One theme expressed over and over again at the college is the contrast between incoming students, who are often awkward and insecure, and confident, articulate,secure graduating seniors. Sylvia Benjamin, a chemistry professor, said you can see the change within the first six months of students’ arrival.
The liberal arts program with its almost unlimited options forces students to grow up fast and learn to make decisions, with support and mentoring from faculty.
Christians have been hearing mixed signals throughout their Pakistani experience. In general they are perceived not as enemies but as poor, uneducated and unsophisticated — reflecting in part a centuries-old pattern of Presbyterian mission work focusing on the “least of these.”
Still, the infamous Penal Code Section 295 C — in which acts of blasphemy against Muhammad and defiling the Quran are punishable by death — has been used to intimidate the Christian minority. While Pakistan’s Christians universally understand what they’re not allowed to do, they have little defense against a neighbor tearing out a page of the Quran and leaving it on the front stoop of their house — and then calling the police to report the defilement. What’s more, a new law aiming to regulate texting on smart phones recently was proposed, which if adopted will prohibit the use of obscene and offensive words — among them, “Jesus Christ.”
Nevertheless, many in the Muslim majority welcome Christian missionaries. They realize that the missionaries “are here to serve us.” In fact, 80 percent of all nurses in Pakistan are Christian. And the schools and hospitals formed by the Christian missions and churches have earned the highest reputations for quality. A look around Forman’s campus shows that even religiously conservative Muslim parents happily send their children to a university whose middle name is Christian.
Fortunately, Forman Christian College is not the only mission outpost helping to turn the country around. The Presbyterian Education Board (PEB) in Pakistan oversees 12 elementary and secondary schools — most denationalized in 1998 — scattered across the northern half of the country. The board also oversees the S.H.E. for a Better Pakistan project (Struggle, Hope and Empowerment), which is helping poor girls and women improve their social, cultural and economic status.
In his final speech as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates compared Pakistani-American relations to a bad marriage — one that won’t lead to divorce because both parties need each other. The two countries’ relationship remains rife with mixed signals. One partner both embraces and rejects American ways. It both welcomes and threatens its Christian minority.
Younathan Abdia, assistant professor of mathematics and statistics at Forman, says Americans he meets always are surprised to hear him speak of himself as a Christian Pakistani.
“They ask if there is discrimination. I say every country has discrimination. But I’m proud of being Pakistani. And Forman is a good platform that shows how tolerant we are.”
He does add one disappointing caveat: “It’s a Presbyterian university, but every PC(USA) church I’ve visited didn’t know there is a Presbyterian University in Pakistan.”