Powerful portrait of persecuted Pakistani

Read this story. Now.

That’s my first and prevailing statement concerning a Houston Chronicle profile this week of a Pakistani woman who suffered extreme persecution because of her Christian faith.

The 1,300-word narrative is extremely powerful, filled with vivid scenes, precise details and compelling dialogue. The top of the remarkable piece:

She was 16 years old, working as an operator in a tiny, public call office in Pakistan, when a man walked in and saw the silver cross dangling around her neck.

He asked her three times: “Are you a Christian?”

Julie Aftab answered, “Yes, sir,” the first two times, and then got frustrated.

“Didn’t you hear me?” she asked.

They argued, and the man abruptly left the little office, returning 30 or 40 minutes later with a turquoise bottle. Aftab tried to block the arc of battery acid, but it melted much of the right side of her face and left her with swirling, bone-deep burns on her chest and arms. She ran for the door, but a second man grabbed her hair, and they poured the acid down her throat, searing her esophagus.

A decade and 31 surgeries later, Aftab is an accounting major at the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a melodic laugh. She spoke no English when she arrived in Houston in February 2004, but is poised to take her citizenship test later this month.

Doctors in Houston have donated their time to painstakingly reconstruct her cheek, nose, upper lip and replace her eyelids. Over time, her scars have faded from hues of deep wine to mocha.

And, with time, the 26-year-old said, she has learned to forgive.

“Those people, they think they did a bad thing to me, but they brought me closer to God,” Aftab said. “They helped me fulfill my dreams. I never imagined I could be the person I am today.”

I’m tempted to cut and paste several other sections of the story. There’s just so much exceptional material. But instead, I’ll refer back to what I said earlier: Read this story. Now.

(I’ll wait while you peruse it, and then we can finish our discussion.)

OK … welcome back!

What’s your reaction to the story? Did find it as moving as I did? If so, what made it work? Any criticisms?

As much as I liked the piece, a couple of things about it gnawed at me. My largely minor criticisms:

— The story is told almost entirely from the perspective of the victim. That’s probably out of necessity, and I don’t know how you avoid that. But as a result, Muslims in general play the role of villains in this story. Perhaps that’s entirely appropriate. However, I wondered if the Chronicle might have considered including the voice of a Muslim in Houston. Undoubtedly, reading about this woman’s experience outraged Christian readers in Houston. But what about Muslim readers? What’s their reaction to the persecution this woman endured?

— Since the story relies on the victim’s recollection (with little way for the reporter to verify facts), we get vague references in some places. For example, we read that authorities did not file a crime report until “Christian leaders” complained. We read that the victim’s parents sought help from a “nondenominational bishop.” I found myself wanting more concrete information about these people. Maybe I’m totally off base on my complaints. I’d love some feedback from GR readers on whether I’m just a nitpicky buzzkill (or maybe my wife is the only onewho thinks that).

Anyway, if you’ve made it all the way to the bottom of this post and still haven’t followed directions, shame on you. Read this story. Now.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • sari

    I liked it, Bobby: brief and to the point. The reference to a non-denominational bishop intrigued me, since it usually takes a religious group to confer the title. Rather than interview a Muslim, the reporter should have sought out a Pakistani Muslim, preferably one who’d recently lived in or visited Pakistan–someone familiar with the religious dynamics and all the players. The rest would have required at least some travel to Pakistan with no guarantee of success.

    What happened to the rest of her family? Did they stay put or did they accompany her to the states?

  • Mark Baddeley

    Great report, thanks for bringing it to my notice.

    I think your criticisms aren’t unfair, but it is hard to see how the report as written could have incorporated them. It is a narrative with a fairly tight arc. Moving out to reactions to the story from Christians, Muslims or others would have taken a lot of skill to weave into the arc, wihout changing the whole feel of the account.

    The non-denominational bishop and his advice sought of hangs in the story with no explanation and no follow-up. Has she forgiven them? What sort of healing was being promised? Is what the doctors have done the fulfillment of the bishop’s words? I wonder if there was a sentence or two edited out.

  • http://www.semicolonbog.com Sherry Early

    I found the story quite moving. I did wonder, too, what has happened to her family since she left Pakistan. Are they continuing to endure persecution as a result of her “reputation”?

  • Ron Henzel

    I have to admit that I feel somewhat ambivalent toward the notion of adding an interview with a Houston-area Muslim to this story. What would be the point? Does anyone really doubt that it would be fairly easy to find an American Muslim who would condemn what happened to Julie Aftab in Pakistan? And what is the likelihood that the Chronicle would have included an unexpurgated interview with an American Muslim who thinks Aftab “had it coming to her?”

    More than a decade after 9-11, haven’t many of us become more-or-less aware of the fact that there is a spectrum of thinking within Islam, ranging from highly secularized and presumably tolerant Muslims on the one hand to highly intolerant extreme fundamentalists on the other? And since the events of the Arab Spring, are not many of us more aware that Muslim nations also vary in where their overall cultures fall on that spectrum? How would selecting one, two, or even three voices from this broad spectrum help readers bring the suffering of Christians in Pakistan into sharper focus? I’m not sure it would to any great extent.

    The story is primarily about Julie Aftab, and only secondarily about intolerant Muslims. To bring in other Muslim voices makes it a story primarily about the question of religious tolerance within Islam, and there’s just not enough space in a standard news article to do that topic justice.

  • Maureen

    The problem is that some of the names are probably unknown, and others probably went unnamed for fear of getting them killed back in Pakistan.

    A lot of Houston Muslims of Pakistani background may have felt reluctant to comment even if they were asked. Obviously you can put that in a story too, but obviously the reporter didn’t, if they did ask.

    The story didn’t point out that the multiple repeats of the same question, and the trying to get the girl to say something “offensive,” are both pretty classic Muslim persecution stuff — because that pattern is outlined in hadiths, with justification from the Quran.

    For example, I recall reading the same question pattern from some of the persecutions in Cordova, Spain in the ninth century.

  • http://frankviola.org Frank Viola

    Interesting and moving. Thx.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    Perhaps the story should have quoted a Muslim religious leader in Houston, but I don’t know that a Muslim-man-or-woman-on-the-street line or two would really add much.

    I agree I’d like to see a little bit about the official process involved when this atrocity was committed, if just for context. But it’s probably not likely to be available, and it’s possible that the names of others involved or their identifying characteristics weren’t used in order to help safeguard them.

  • John

    I suspect the Bishop was referred in a generalized way in order to protect him, and his flock. For the past years, until recently, I published a daily online newspaper that focused on Christian news and persecution. We had a writer who lived in Pakistan and reported on the persecution of Christians. The writer was forced to use a pen name and hide his face. If he had ever been exposed publicly he would have been imprisoned or murdered. It is often the case with clergy too who have to work in secrecy.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/akramsrazor svend

    Truly a shameful and heart-breaking tale. As a Muslim, all I can say is God bless her and may those bastards burn in Hell.

    I don’t say this to justify or minimize such barbarity, but since the focus of this blog is on providing needed context to religion news one factor that has to be remembered is that extremely intolerant, destabilizing political forces were unleashed (and armed to the teeth) in the region by the US and Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviets in the 1980s and that sinister genie has never been put back in its bottle. (Not that the authorities have tried as hard as I would like–but, remember, in keeping these rabid jihadi forces in reserve as a potential weapon against India they’re in a sense following Washington’s playbook from its own efforts against the Soviets a generation earlier–but that doesn’t change the fact that these forces did not arise organically–they were actively developed by outside forces and then left to wreak havoc.) And, sadly, such sectarianism is only getting worse as Pakistan’s economy weakens. It’s a terrible situation.

    As for Maureen’s comments about there being sanction for such savagery in either the Hadith or Quran, she is grossly misinformed. These are grave crimes in Islamic law.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/akramsrazor svend

    Forgot to mention that Christians are by no means the only religious minorities being targeted by such extremists in Pakistan. The Ahmadi sect gets treated even worse, and Shias also are subject to discrimination and occasional violence. Christians aren’t the only canaries suffering in this mine.