“This girl was in love only with your Christ”

“This girl was in love only with your Christ”

Q amar Zia found her new Christian school full of surprises. On the one hand the teachers were so kind and gentle. On the other hand she found herself required to study the Bible, although, as a Muslim, she did not like even to touch the book of the blasphemers, as she had heard Christians called. 

One day the class was told to memorise parts of Isaiah 53. As Qamar struggled with the task, something happened, which she later described as follows:

God, by his grace, showed me that there was life and power in this book. Then I began to realise that Jesus is alive for ever. Through Isaiah 53, the first verse, He was saying to me with great sadness, “Who hath believed our report and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Now I knew and believed it and that His arm had been revealed to me. I knew that this was the true way.

Thus God put faith in my heart and I believed on Jesus as my Saviour and Forgiver of my sins. Only He could save me from everlasting death. I only then began to realize how great a sinner I was, whereas before I thought that my good life could save me. 

Now a living power began to work in me. When Satan would try to catch me with his nets and chains, I could resist him by reading the New Testament and trusting Christ. Sometimes Jesus would say to me as He did to Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are troubled about many things, but Mary has chosen the good part which shall not be taken from her.”  

Soon Qamar was winning all the Scripture prizes at her school.

When Qamar was 17 India gained its independence and Pakistan came into being as a homeland for Indian Muslims. Qamar’s family moved from Madras (now Chennai) in South India to Karachi, then capital of Pakistan. She had not yet told her family about her Christian faith, and could not bring her Bible with her. But she did manage to tell her old school in Madras where she was and they arranged for Marian Laugesen, a New Zealand missionary in Karachi, to visit Qamar. Marian was able to slip Qamar a New Testament, without the family seeing, and when, soon afterwards, the family moved again, Qamar brought her New Testament along. For seven years that New Testament was her only spiritual support, for she did not meet another Christian or have any other Christian book.   

As was customary, her family began to arrange a marriage for her – naturally it would be with a Muslim. But Qamar knew she could never live as a Christian if she had a Muslim husband, so on 18 June 1955 she ran away from home. She found Marian and stayed in the orphanage where Marian worked. It was apparently at this time that Marian gave Qamar the name Esther John.

Esther (back row, third from left) studied from 1956 to 1959 at the United Bible Training Centre in Gujranwala

Within a few days, Esther’s family discovered  her whereabouts and persuaded her to visit her widowed mother who was ill. When Esther arrived, the family began to accelerate her marriage plans. Esther fled again, moving hundreds of miles north to the Punjab, where she lived in the nurses’ home at a Christian hospital  in Sahiwal. Helping in the hospital, she delighted in serving others and in sharing her faith. She became known for her singing and sense of humour, often telling stories about her own mishaps. 

Later that year Esther was baptised in the nurses’ prayer room by the local pastor, Padri Alexander David, who spoke to her about the verse “I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:20 NKJV). Later he wrote about that day, “I told her that she did not belong to anyone in this world but only to Christ who had died on the Cross for her and betrothed her unto Himself forever and ever.”

Esther was willing to marry a Christian, and let the hospital staff try to find a husband for her.  They approached three families, but in vain. Esther never (knowingly) even met any of the chosen young men. 

Esther had felt for some time that God wanted her to teach the Bible. “This book has great power. I want to see it do for others what it has done for me,” she told friends. After three years at Bible college, she went to Chichawatni, a small town near Sahiwal. There she lived in the home of an elderly American missionary couple, Dale and Janet White, and travelled around the villages with Janet, evangelising. 

Meanwhile Esther’s family kept writing to her, urging her to return home, and arranged more marriages for her, all of which she refused. But Esther longed to see her mother, and after Christmas 1959 wrote a letter to her family saying that she would go home on two conditions: she must be allowed to live as a Christian and she must not be forced to marry. No answer came.

On 1 February 1960 the monthly overnight meeting of local pastors and evangelists was held at the Whites’ home, the men sleeping in various rooms with quilts and blankets. The next morning Esther was found dead in her bed, her skull smashed twice with a heavy, sharp instrument. 

The police suspected a disappointed suitor had killed her and searched the house for evidence. They went through Esther’s books and papers, but afterwards said to Dale, “Sir, we have found no clue. This girl was in love only with your Christ.”  

Esther’s murderer was never found, but it is thought that one of her brothers killed his sister, in order to restore the family honour. The act of leaving Islam is considered to bring great shame on a Muslim family. 

A statue of Esther John can be seen above the west door of Westminster Abbey, London.  She was included as one of ten statues of modern Christian martyrs, placed there in 1998, on the recommendation of Dr Patrick Sookhdeo 

The story of Esther John appears in Patrick Sookhdeo’s book of 366 daily devotional readings on Christian martyrs, Heroes of Our Faith Vol. 1  (Isaac Publishing, 2012, second edition 2021, ISBN 978-1-9524501-2-9)  See entry for February 2.
To purchase a copy please go to
barnabasaid.org/resources/books or contact your nearest Barnabas Aid office (addresses on inside front cover) or write to
sales@barnabasbooks.org

A longer version of her story can be found in The Terrible Alternative: Christian Martyrdom in the Twentieth Century edited by Andrew Chandler (Cassell, 1998). See the chapter on “Mission and conversion in Pakistan: Esther John (Qamar Zia)” by Patrick Sookhdeo (pages 102-116).