Last week, International Christian Voice hosted a Memorial Service in honor of the late Cecil Chaudhry, a real Pakistani hero. Chaudhry, a fighter pilot – known the world over and remembered for his valiant heroic efforts in two Indo-Pak wars, as well as his work as both an educationalist and human rights activist. The service was held on May 25, at a church in Brampton.
The event was well-attended by many members of the Pakistani Christian community, members of Chaudhry’s family including his cousin and brother-in-law, as well as Canadian Member Parliament Joe Daniel, and Conservative Party of Canada National Councillor (Ontario) Mark Dotzert.
A banner hung in the front of the church rightfully displayed “Cecil Chaudhry: a True Son of the Nation”.
As people arrived, they entered immediately into worship led by Pastor Samuel Ghauri, Faraz Saleem and another young Pakistani Christian gentleman.
The memorial service was opened with a welcome message from Major Ret. Vincent Samuel, who gave a brief background on Cecil Chaudhry’s history as a war hero as well as a public servant. Samuel told the gathering about Chaudhry’s nicknames: “Guppoo” from his air force buddies – who remember Chaudhry for his unending stories; “Cees” from others; and as Samuel stated – for the rest of us, he was a hero who fought for us as Pakistanis.
Samuel took the time to remember the late Bishop John Joseph, who literally gave his life in protest – in order to bring awareness about the atrocities taking place in Pakistan because of the Blasphemy Law – the anniversary of whose death was on May 6th. Samuel also asked the gathering to remember the 129 soldiers and 11 civilians who died in the Siachen Avalanche on April 7th, 2012 – this included 3 Christian soldiers.
Samuel stated, “as a soldier who spent some time of my youth on the Siachen Glacier, I remember tonight that grave incident -- those who lost their lives, including three Christian soldiers. Please remember Arif Masih, Moon Gul and Naveed Masih and their families in your prayers.”
Samuel then welcomed Reverend Dr. Rashid Gill forward to lead worship. Reverend Dr. Gill led the gathering in singing psalm: “Daim Yahova Ya Rabb”.
Next Kanwal Dean read a few passages from the Bible, followed by Pastor Suleman Khokhar who led everyone in a prayer. Pastor Khokhar prayed for the family and loved ones of Chaudhry; that God would use Chaudhry’s life as a testimony, and use this memorial as a celebration of the life God gave him. Pastor Khokhar prayed “There is a crown of righteousness waiting for those who run the race – who fight the good fight”, stating he had faith that Chaudhry was indeed one of those.
The service was then led by Pastor Samuel Ghauri – who asked those present to join him in a short chorus before he began his sermon (“I love you Lord, and I life my voice to worship You”). He asked everyone a question “How many of you can say tonight that you have a hero in your life?” Leading us all to think back to all the heroes that we do indeed have – I remembered at this time sitting a few nights ago with my father in our living room while he thought back to his hero, Cecil Chaudhry. My father told me that growing up, especially as a Christian, the joy – the pride – the honor it was to have a man like Cecil Chaudhry as a part of the Pakistani Christian community, and how many of our young people in those days, including my own dad would think “when I grow up I want to be like him!”
Pastor Samuel recalled the story of Nehemia, “a cup bearer from the year 462 BC”, as he put it. The most valuable person in Emperor Cyrus’s kingdom – he would taste the food before the emperor, a position which meant he was trusted beyond any other. Pastor Samuel taught everyone that although Nehemiah was different from the others in that place – different skin colour, background, religion, etc.; he did his job better than them all – and lived in a way that made even the Emperor put his trust in him. Pastor then told the gathering that a child of God must do his job, live out his purpose with dignity, trustworthiness, and grace – a humbleness of heart and mind that clearly Nehemia showed – the same attitude and service that could be seen in the life of Cecil Chaudhry. The pastor also reminded everyone that we will all face death, and so we must live as those two heroes did.
Pastor Samuel similarly remembered another hero, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was also a dear friend and confidante of Cecil Chaudhry. In honour of those heroes who had passed and those who still struggle in life, he urged the community in saying, “here on the podium, we say so many good things about people that have passed away – but we must start learning to say good things about people while they are alive.”
The next part of the service was led by Nitasha Bhatti and Vincent Samuel as MCs introducing people who shared their personal experiences and stories about Cecil Chaudhry. Two multimedia clips were played beginning with a video slideshow of Cecil Chaudhry’s life and accomplishments, as well as a beautiful and touching message from Michelle Chaudhry, daughter of Cecil Chaudhry – who regaled her memories of a man who was not only the nation’s hero, but her own; her father, friend and teacher. Michelle said about Chaudhry, “Our father excelled in everything he chose to do,” a statement clearly evident in Chaudhry’s fearless and selfless war efforts, as well as his lifelong purpose to educate.
As Nitasha Bhatti put it, Cecil Chaudhry is an “example of how our Pakistani Christians despite their hardships are willing to fight for their nation.”
Next Pastor Javed Akthtar led the service in a prayer for the families of all martyrs, and specifically for the family of Cecil Chaudhry in their time of need. The prayer was followed by a beautiful poem written by local celebrated poet Javed Iqbal, written in honour of Chaudhry.
ICV Chairman Peter Bhatti addressed the gathering, reiterating the history and biography of the great Cecil Chaudhry and on behalf of ICV saluted Chaudhry and all heroes like him. Bhatti also reaffirmed the mission of ICV to continue their work – work inspired by heroes like Cecil Chaudhry and Shahbaz Bhatti.
MP Joe Daniel was introduced as a true friend to our Pakistani Christian community; he is an active supporter of religious freedom here in Canada and around the world. He recently visited Pakistan as well, meeting with members of Pakistani Christian leadership and getting to know our community's issues and goals. MP Joe Daniel referred to Chaudhry as a “beacon of light in [our] community,” someone we can look to as a reference of success and goodness, and emulate our own lives and works – “shine our own light.”
CPC National Councillor Mark Dotzert, who works very closely with our Pakistani Christian community here in Ontario – specifically engaging our youth in politics, asked us “who will take his place?” Who would be willing to stand and support others as Chaudhry did? Quoting Proverbs 31, Dotzert spoke to the gathering about how the Proverb tells us not only of the noble wife – but makes reference to her husband (“Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land”). The woman is a Godly and righteous woman, and because of who she is – her husband is able to go out and stand tall and work for others as well; because as Dotzert put it – a city or metropolis was named thus as it’s root came from “polis” or politics, and the man at the city gate was one who gave his life in public service, i.e. politics. Dotzert encouraged the community to continue to step forward in Pakistan, and everywhere we may be to take our place in the leadership and guidance of our cities/communities and nations.
Renowned musician Raja Harrison led the gathering in Psalm 139, one that he told was beloved by Chaudhry (“Khudaya Teri Ruh thon mein”) – a pilot who would often say that when in flight he would wonder about God’s Glory and Omnipotence and be reminded of this Psalm:
“Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.”
Next Reverend Group Captain Ret. James Luke, a colleague and friend of Chaudhry’s spoke. With the reverence of one who truly knew the sacrifice and courage it takes to do battle, he stated, “you can’t imagine how it feels, at a height of 50thousand with the enemy chasing after you,” but that even there he knew – as Chaudhry did that God is there at that moment with us. Reverend Luke spoke sadly about how government initiatives in Pakistan led to the removal of Chaudhry’s name in school books and texts; but that it could not erase his legacy.
The Reverend also reminisced on the heart-rending time during the Indo-Pak war of 1971, when his own base received news that Chaudhry’s plane had been shot down. He talked about the “utter silence” that took hold over literally every person around the base that day – and then the sheer joy that they all felt when they learned that Chaudhry’s plane had indeed been shot down but he had landed on the Pakistani side of the border. That day, as Reverend Luke recalls – "we saw him walking towards our base", everyone was filled with excitement and joy at the sight of Chaudhry – whom the Reverend referred to as “very affectionate” and a “very tall figure” indeed.
After the Reverend, Faraz Saleem spoke to the gathering about the Cecil Chaudhry he knew – his principle at St. Anthony’s. As a student of Chaudhry’s, Saleem proudly told how his coming to Canada in 1999 after his O-levels in Pakistan, meant that he felt no communication barrier here. He had received an excellent education under Chaudhry’s guidance in the school. Saleem, a well-known community member and creator of the South Asian Christian website said Chaudhry “made me the man that I am today” and that much of his accomplishments are “because I had a solid foundation in education.”
Saleem also told us a particularly memorable anecdote about his time in St. Anthony's; when he and other students had been caught skipping their class and were sent to the principal’s office. Chaudhry had dismissed the others and taken him (Saleem) aside specifically to say to the young student: “I don’t want any of my Christian [students] to be highlighted for discipline”, teaching him about the importance of working harder and with greater respect than others, as a Christian student in Pakistan. Saleem also discussed Chaudhry’s efforts in subsidizing education for Christian students who could not afford school fees to the prestigious school.
This importance that Chaudhry had shown Saleem about the shaping of young minds was evident in Saleem’s last words during his eulogy.He encouraged community members and leadership to bring younger generations into the fold – as many these days do not know what Cecil Chaudhry and others like him have done. Without the understanding of their sacrifices – younger generations are unable to value and in turn have interest in Pakistani Christian issues.
Next, a Pakistani Naval Officer by the name of George Ghulam regaled us with the story of his brief encounter with Chaudhry. Ghulam told everyone that he wanted to be in the Air Force very much – but ended up “landing in the sea”. Still he stated, he was “encouraged by [Chaudhry’s] valiance and wanted to meet him,” so he “travelled to Lahore to do so, where [Chaudhry] was principal of St. Anthony’s”. Ghulam said that at the time he visited Lahore, St. Anthony’s was undergoing an admissions week and Chaudhry was very busy interviewing parents who wanted to enroll their children in the school. Time was limited for both Ghulam who was only in Lahore for a day or so, as well as Chaudhry – but he was given some time right after a parents’ meeting. That brief encounter, Ghulam said “stayed as a pearl in my memory.” Ghulam said before he left that day, he told Chaudhry that he had come only to salute him – and in true military fashion gave the hero a salute. Ghulam then turned to the picture of Chaudhry up in the church during service and said once again “I saluted him then, and I’ll salute him today.”
Ghulam ended by noting how wonderful it was to have all three tiers of Pakistan’s Armed Forces present in the service to give tribute to their hero, Cecil Chaudhry.
In closing the memorial service, ICV Executive Eliza Charles thanked everyone for joining ICV, and condoled with the community at large for the loss of a man who was clearly beloved and admired by all. A prayer closing the memorial and over the food was done by Reverend Alexander David, and after joining the choir in one last hymn – the attendees filtered out to a wonderful reception with hot food and lots of delightful conversation.
It was a wonderful evening, and I myself learned a lot just by being there. I wish more younger people had taken the time to join us, because as I became even more aware of that evening -- Chaudhry really is a man to be proud of in our community. One who showed us we can do big things, even as Pakistani Christians.