Pakistan is one of my favourite places. Not only did I serve as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (ret 2000) and met many of the most delightful Pakistanis, but I have followed the magnificent Pakistani hockey players over the years.
It was my privilege to write hockey for The Australian for 24 years to 1994 covering Olympics, World Cups and Champions Trophies (and I have written 5 books on field hockey). There is nothing more emotional 'to my heart' than to see the Pakistan hockey team run out with their dark green shirts. Their national teams from eras past tickled the hockey ball as they toyed with their opponents and entertained the spectators. Brilliance is only half a word to describe it all.
Every time I catch a taxi and there is a Pakistani cab driver, immediately I engage in a conversation initially on hockey and then cricket. We become 'bestest friends' within a few minutes as once they know who I am, there is total mutual respect. And moreover, they will, with utmost politeness listen as I speak the story of Jesus and His Salvation.
I was around the Pakistan cricket team over many years and regularly called in to their dressing them to say hello and was greeted both warmly, and as a friend of Pakistan. It has also been my joy to meet many other Pakistani athletes as Olympic chaplain since 1984, and through my work developing Religious Services Protocols over the years. For example, I encouraged the former captain, Yousif (then a Catholic) in his continuing walk with the Lord.
Every year, I have been aware of Pakistan Christian evangelistic rallies and or events of one sort or another. Pakistan is by no means a closed book to Christian things and we all saw this a few years when several of the Pakistani cricketers attended their late coach (Bob Woolmer) funeral in the Cathedral right in the centre of Pakistani life and culture.
Yet politics can be brutal in Pakistan – assassination, murder, trumped-up court proceedings, thuggery and other human rights violations. How former cricketing great Imran Khan has maintained his morally esteemed position in Pakistan politics in such a climate is nothing short of a miracle.
Another aspect of this society is associated with Pakistan's difficult religious laws within the legal setting of Islam, specifically blasphemy. Here are some examples from the media:
Pakistan court upholds death penalty – Asia Bibi
Trial of Pakistan Christian girl – case continues
Another case of extra-judicial murder of a Christian accused of blasphemy
This is front and centre Pakistan judicial system. This is not some far away situation in a rural area where no one knows better; this is main stream, from the President's office, from the Pakistan High Court's office, this is codified. Blasphemy against Islam and the Prophet are treated very harshly, as these examples show. Christians often get treated badly, by those in authority in Pakistan who interpret these laws.
The Australian sporting authorities were quick enough to come against South Africa over apartheid in the 1970s, with controversy and mixed feelings in the public arena about mixing sport and politics. There have also been various regimes boycotting Olympic games by in 1936, 1980 and 1984 because of political activities in the host countries (Germany, USSR and USA respectively). My question from my tortured mind on this is "should we be boycotting sporting events, cricket in this instance, with Pakistan following these precedents?"
Already, when any Australian sporting body meets face to face with their Pakistani counterpart, ground rules are set out for the protection of athletes and officials when visiting Pakistan. Obviously it includes food security, travel and accommodation security, and surely it must include the right of Christian worship (or any other religious rite for that matter) without interference or public abuse.
The New Zealand cricket team a few years ago had to come home out of such legitimate fears.
The fact that Australia has to play Pakistan outside Pakistan seems to be one way forward as it illustrates the difficulties. It is in effect Pakistan saying, "our Government endorses abuse to religious human rights and so as to avoid any nastiness, we'll play you outside the country - somewhere else".
As the reader can see, I am in two minds myself over such terrible outcomes.
My heartfelt desire is for Australia to play cricket and hockey against Pakistan along with squash (another great Pakistani sport) and all those Olympic sports. Logic would dictate that sport and politics should not mix. Yet, I know that logic and altruism do not necessarily lead to practical outcomes where human behaviour is concerned.
How can any one of us stand aside while engaging with Pakistan – enjoying these delightful sporting endeavours while sipping tea from a beautiful china cup - while our Pakistani Christian brothers and sisters are dealt with such codified horrific calamity?
The question for me
So the question for me is, do I allow my passion for Pakistani sports override my passion for my fellow Pakistani believers in such horrific distress. If the latter, the next question, can I do anything about it?
First, I can pray.
Second, I can speak about my fellow believers' plight (I have a daily column in Christian Today).
And third, as someone who feels so much empathy for Pakistanis, I can call upon that wonderful nation's leaders (men and women of integrity) - "to let my people (Christians) go!"
Right now, the European Parliament last Thursday called on Pakistan to overhaul its blasphemy laws with a view to repealing them, saying they were "increasingly used to target" Christians and other minorities.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html