Leave all other ties, Jesus is calling.
Esther John was born Qamar Zia, on 14th October 1929, one of seven children. As a child she attended a government school and, after the age of seventeen, a Christian school. There she was profoundly moved by the transparent faith of one of her teachers, and she began to read the Bible earnestly. It was when reading the 53rd chapter of Isaiah that she was suddenly overtaken by a sense of conversion to this new religion.
When India was partitioned Qamar Zia moved with her family into the new state of Pakistan. Here she made contact with a missionary, Marian Laugesen in Karachi. Laugesen, at her request, passed on to her a New Testament. Her Christian faith grew privately, even secretly. Then, seven years later, she ran away from home, fearful of the prospect of marriage to a Muslim husband. She found her way back to Laugesen in Karachi. For a while Qamar Zia worked in an orphanage there, and it was at this time that she took the name Esther John. Her family still pressed her to return and to marry, but on 30th June 1955 she took a train north to Sahiwal, in the Punjab. Here she lived and worked in a mission hospital, stayed with the first Anglican bishop of Karachi, Chandu Ray, and celebrated her first Christmas. Finding a vocation to teach, she entered the United Bible Training Centre in Gujranwala in September 1956. In April 1959 she completed her studies there and moved to Chichawatni, some thirty miles from Sahiwal, living with American Presbyterian missionaries. She evangelized in the villages, travelling from one to the other by bicycle, teaching women to read and working with them in the cotton fields. At times her relationship with her distant and perplexed family appeared calm; at others anxiety and tension brewed.
Her death was sudden and mysterious. On 2nd February 1960 Esther John was found dead in her bed at the house where she lived at Chichawatni. She had been brutally murdered.
Her body was taken to the Christian cemetery at Sahiwal and buried. Later, a memorial chapel was built in front of the nurses' home in the grounds of the hospital there. Today, Esther John is remembered with devotion by the Christian community with whom she lived and worked.
Esther John is one of the ten Modern Martyrs of the 20th century. The Martyrs were unveiled in 1998 above the west door of the Abbey. The sculptor was Neil Simmons.
By Gordon Bell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library
Image © 2023 Dean and Chapter of Westminster