ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The floor was hard and the night was growing cold, but the magic of the Christmas pageant — livened by comic scenes and peppy music — kept the audience members spellbound as they huddled in an outdoor church tent.
Mothers craned their necks to see which preschool angel was theirs. People cheered the exotic-looking wise men and booed the swaggering King Herod. They clapped along with “Jingle Bells,” hushed in wait for the manger scene and burst into applause when Mary held up her swaddled baby.
The message of Christmas had special resonance this season among Pakistani Christians, an old but often persecuted minority of about 3 million in a country of 208 million that is 95 percent Muslim. Many labor at low-level jobs and reside in self-contained “colonies” anchored by small churches.
The Nativity drama Sunday evening was held in France Colony, one of a dozen poor Christian neighborhoods in the capital. It was bustling with creativity. Families set up miniature creches, and volunteers constructed elaborate life-size tableaux of snowmen, shepherds and stars, illuminated by thousands of tiny bulbs strung amid tree branches.
“Christmas means everything to us,” said Asif Mushtak, 36, a government clerk, whose children were decorating a tree on their roof. “People here have limited resources. Mostly they bring each other cakes. What is important is the message: Jesus taught love, so hatred should end, among all people and religions.”
Two months ago, the Pakistan Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman imprisoned for nine years on charges of blasphemy. The verdict set off several days of rioting by Muslim extremists. Their leaders demanded that Bibi be hanged, called for the overthrow of the government and urged soldiers to mutiny.
Officials did little at first to quell the unrest, leaving Christian communities worried for their safety. Bibi was put into protective custody, where she still remains. But early this month, the extremist leaders were arrested and charged with various offenses, belatedly signaling that religious minorities — and the law — were to be respected.
“This is the first Christmas after the release of Asia. It is a matter of great joy for Christians,” said Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. He said the verdict “has strengthened the trust of Christians and other minorities in this society. I only wish she could be reunited with her family and celebrate Christmas with them.”
Two weeks ago, the State Department listed Pakistan as one of the world’s top three abusers of religious rights, along with China and Saudi Arabia. The finding cited Pakistan’s harsh laws that make blasphemy punishable by death and singled out the Bibi case.
Pakistan strongly rejected the U.S. action, but in a speech Saturday, Prime Minister Imran Khan said the government must do more to “protect our minorities,” reiterating that religious freedom was a central tenet of the country’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
In past years, churches across Pakistan have been periodically attacked by Islamist militants, and Christians as well as other minority members often have been falsely accused of blasphemy for insulting Islam or the prophet Muhammad, which alone can lead to jailing or lynching.
“When we celebrate Christmas, the foremost thing in our mind is peace for our society and protection for Christians and other minorities,” Chaudhry said. “Fortunately, the law and order situation is better now, so we are celebrating this year with our minds more free of concern.”
In France Colony and several other Christian communities, residents seemed hesitant to speak about the Bibi case, but several said they felt that Christians were being better respected and accepted now, as Pakistani Muslims have become better educated about other beliefs.
“When I was growing up, we learned about the prophet Muhammad in school, but other children didn’t learn much about us,” said Rafaqat Massih, 40, a chauffeur whose family lives in a cheerfully decorated one-room flat. “Now, Muslim people want to know more and discuss with us. We used to feel it was not safe to talk about religious topics, but now we feel better.”
In the past few years, competition has grown among Christian colonies to put on the most spectacular outdoor displays, and more Muslim visitors and politicians come to see them. On Tuesday, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, attended Christmas services at a church in Rawalpindi city, where he spoke about Christian contributions to Pakistan’s health care, education and defense.
In France Colony, a labyrinth of steep, narrow alleys perched on the edge of a trash-filled ravine, the bright holiday lights on Christmas Eve temporarily masked the gritty reality of daily life.
By Christmas Eve, the neighborhood was ablaze with color, and festive music blared from loudspeakers. A grotto next to a culvert strewn with garbage had been transformed into a winter wonderland, with white crystals covering the ground and multicolor bulbs dangling from bamboo thickets.
As midnight approached, families with small children thronged to marvel at the scenes. TV crews reported live in front of snowmen and miniature volcanoes. At one community entrance, a tunnel of lights welcomed visitors, while a police detail patrolled on foot nearby.
In addition to publicly showcasing their faith, celebrating Christmas also binds and uplifts struggling Christian communities. Alcoholism is a common problem among working-class men there, and many Pakistani Muslims, whose faith prohibits drinking, view it as a Christian vice.
As the festive spirit grew more raucous on Christmas Eve, some young men wandered through the alleys of France Colony, sipping from bottles. But others took pride in pitching in on holiday projects, and groups of boys with badges were assigned to guard every display and guide visitors through them.
“We want everyone to get involved and feel the spirit, and not to celebrate too zealously by taking drugs or drinking too much,” said Daniel Kohkar, 15, who gathered branches with friends to build an outdoor manger.
The Nativity drama in the tent, put on by members of the United Prayer Fellowship Church, took months of work and practice. The wise men and shepherds, who dressed in colorful costumes and performed choreographed songs, were all local men. The angel Gabriel, who had to make numerous speeches wearing enormous wings, was 17.
The play was accompanied by a keyboard player, a group of singers with harmoniums and tablas playing traditional Pakistani qawwali music with a driving beat, and recorded tapes of sheep bleating, flute solos and pounding drums. The stage curtain was made of two bedsheets.
“Let’s all encourage our brothers and sisters with applause,” the church pastor, the Rev. Manuel Faiz, pleaded when the between-act arrangements took too long and children began to fidget. “Please be patient. There’s only one more scene to go.”
But each time the curtain was pulled back, and the wise men pointed excitedly to a new star or King Herod strode about waving his sword, the fidgeting stopped. And when the baby Jesus finally made his appearance, amid a chorus of joyful voices, every face in that frigid tent lit up with awe.