Monday, January 14, 2013

'I know you're serious.' And that's dialogue for me
Samuel Packiam PhD

Rev Dr Samuel Packiam is an ordained minister of the Church of South India, Tirunelveli Diocese who completed his PhD in Christian Muslim Relations from Westminster College, Oxford. He is presently on deputation to the Interfaith Coalition for Peace, New Delhi. He has also been designated to be the director of Henry Martyn Institute of Islamic Studies at Hyderabad. He spoke to Victor Edwin SJ on the status of Christian-Muslim relations in India.

Edwin: Rev Samuel, kindly tell us how you got interested in studying Christian Muslim Relations?
Samuel: My passion for bridging religious differences has been shaped not only by my spiritual connection to the Christian tradition, which promotes striving towards the common good, but also by my upbringing.  As a youth, I was privileged enough to travel to many places as part of the gospel team. Thus I was exposed at a young age to people of diverse ethnic backgrounds as well as introduced to people of various faiths. 
As an undergraduate I studied theology at Leonard Theological College, Jabalpur.  During this time I became interested in early heresy in the Christian Church. As I studied, I began to realize that the understanding of Jesus Christ in some of these instances, such as the Nestorian interpretation, was very similar to the Islamic understanding of Jesus presented in the Quran. The Islamic interpretation of Jesus and Christianity is not far off from the former beliefs of past Christians. After finishing my first degree, I went on to work with the Henry Martyn Institute, Hyderabad as a Junior staff member and complete my Master’s in Islamic studies. I started looking at Islamic interpretations of Christianity, especially at how Christians are viewed as People of the Book in Muslim society. I wrote a graduate paper on The Status of the Muslim in a Religiously Plural Society. This paper convinced me of the need for education in Islamic Studies, and sparked my interest in educating Indian Christians and Muslims on the need for understanding. I gave a presentation on these issues, and have continued to present this discussion throughout my career. Through my education, I realized I was called to build bridges of understanding between Christians and Muslims. A Muslim is not someone to hate, but rather someone to love. A Muslim is not someone I should hate, but a believer in Jesus, just from a different perspective. I developed a passion for educating my Christian colleagues about Islam and the Muslim identity. We need to promote understanding, and with understanding and grace, we should be able to live together in peace.

Edwin: You have had a lot of good experiences in working with Muslims; kindly tell us something which is deeply etched in your memory?
Samuel: The experiences and insights gained from working together with religious people who are firmly rooted in the faith and teachings of their religions never need to become enemies, even if they are at odds in terms of their communal interests.  Religious community leaders often share the same pastoral concerns, whether they be Muslim or Christian.  Pastors and Muslim leaders from Saharanpur setting up a monthly “fraternal” in which many issues of a theological, pastoral, social and political nature have been discussed and joint action has been taken. Initially these meetings consisted of such topics as “How do we celebrate our festivals and what do they mean to us?” then moved on to “How can we best educate our children in their faith?” before tackling such questions as, “How do we see God?” and “What can we say of the salvation of the other?” There are ups and downs in such a relationship, but persistence and commitment on both sides have seen that we survive for a commendable number of years.

Edwin: You are designated to be the director of Henry Martyn Institute of Islamic Studies? How do you plan to carry forward the wonderful work done by HMI?
Samuel: Over the last few years, there have been all kinds of ideas emerging about the Church, about different faith communities, which I have longed to explore and write up a bit.  So I’m hoping for more space to write and think in that way.  I’m certainly looking forward to being part of an academic community with a open and assertive exchange of ideas, and to the challenges of helping that community to work, which is part of the job of the head of an Institute.  And I think it’s not a million miles away from trying to make the community of the interfaith family work.  But essentially, I believe, you bring to the office who you are, under God.

Edwin: What is the importance of theological dialogue in today's context?
Samuel: Throughout history, people of different religious traditions have encountered one another in a variety of situations. In some instances, representatives of these traditions have been enriched through sharing in one another’s experiences and expressions of faith. In other situations members of these traditions have either withdrawn within the “secure” parameters they have inherited or set themselves, or embarked on discussions from dogmatically determined positions not only as regards their own tradition, but also that of the “other.”
The importance of theological dialogue from an ecumenical, inter-religious, global context should encourage all to move beyond prejudice and bias, be it historical, cultural, social, or theological, in order to cooperate wholeheartedly with all men and women of goodwill in promoting peace, justice, harmony, human rights, and respect for all of God’s creation. This is to be done especially through dialogue with those who are inspired by religious commitment, or those who share a sense of transcendence that opens them to universal values.
Pope John Paul II repeatedly urged we should make inter-religious dialogue an “apostolic priority” for the third millennium. In a world characterized by religious pluralism, a positive relationship with faithful persons from all the world religions is a requirement in order to achieve global peace and the goal of full dignity and justice for all human beings.

Edwin: Are Indian churches adequately interested in dialogue with Islam and Muslims?
Samuel: The Indian Churches have traditionally maintained an ecclesiology that sees it as having a pastoral concern for all people who live within the territory of the parish, diocese or nation. This might be exemplified by the fact that all people who live in a parish have the right to be married in the parish church and to be buried from it even if they are not members of the Church or even Christians. This applies also to members of other faith traditions, who have an equal right to the services of the church. This pastoral concern can be seen in the disposition of Christian schools in India. Like the parish church, traditionally every person who lived in a parish had a right to have their children educated in the parish school and so a Church school has more the self-understanding of a “community school” rather than a “school for church members.” In the recent past, religious communities have concentrated on establishing and building up their own communities. Now the task of the future begins, that is, to draw from the riches of these faith traditions to create a better society. In this society all people, of any faith or none, can live truly respecting the diversity of human values and allowing each other to grow to their full potential.

Edwin: Often we hear that only Christians are interested in dialogue, Muslims are not. How do you see the statements like this?
Samuel: In a middle-class commuter area of the New Delhi live a growing number of Muslim professionals who have formed a Muslim Community Association. This group took the initiative of contacting local Christians with a view to a monthly meeting to discuss topics of mutual interest. This dialogue group is  remarkable in that the number of Muslims far outweighs the number of Christians. The general format of an evening is that there will be a Christian and a Muslim presentation around a set theme, which will be followed by a lengthy period of questions and discussion.
Two interesting observations from this dialogue can be made: first, the Muslim presentation consists of reading a number of passages from the Qur’an with limited comments or acknowledgement of the associated body of scholarship; second, while there are often diverse Christian voices showing the range of such opinion, the Muslim voice is more monolithic, thus prompting that impression of Islam. One difficulty thus exemplified is that there are few Muslim scholars, who are deeply versed in the Islamic sciences, who take part in such discussions. Participants tend to be educated in other disciplines and have pursued limited private Islamic study. This can lead to a somewhat truncated portrayal of Islam.

Edwin: Is there any Islamic organisation that work for the welfare of Christian community in India?
Samuel: Yes, the Zakat Foundation of India (ZFI) helps Christian students to compete in UPSC by facilitating them to get the finest coaching in the esteemed coaching centres in Delhi by financially supporting them annually to the rate of Rs. 2,00,000/-.   In the 2012-13 school year there are 18 Christian students getting their support through this scheme.  The ZFI Fellowship aims to alleviate the lack of Christian representation in the Civil Services, via a merit-based approach.
The Zakat Foundation of India was established in 1997 as a grassroots level organization by concerned residents of New Delhi. It is a Non-Governmental/Non-Profit Organization which collects and utilizes ‘zakat’ or charity for socially beneficial projects in a transparent and organized manner. Their projects include running an orphanage, charitable hospital, providing stipends to widows, micro credit etc.

Edwin: What are the areas of common interest between Muslims and Christians in India?
Samuel: The importance of societal dialogue is obvious in light of the fact that today almost all societies are plural. This calls for a common understanding of basic values, norms and orientations which are verified, accepted and implemented by all groups in the society. One of the basic characteristics of a modern and civilized society is that no group should be marginalized or eliminated for cultural, ethnic, religious, social or other reasons. The possibility to participate in every field of social activity invites people to contribute to the common welfare whatever treasures they have developed in their traditions including social-ethical or spiritual values. The sharing of such values undoubtedly strengthens mutual trust and respect among adherents of different religions.
The teachings of most living religions reject acts of violence, torture, vandalism or terror capable of destroying human life. These are perpetrated by individuals as well as government policies that cultivate injustice, , oppression, exploitation and discrimination., . Opposition to and resistance against them should therefore be the natural and uncompromising answer of all religious people, and the strategy of their actions should be a united one, designed also in a societal dialogue.

Edwin: What can we learn from the long interaction between Christians and Muslims in India?
Samuel: Throughout our lives we continue learning and understanding, thus developing and completing our identity and our perception of ourselves. This process may be hampered whenever we are lacking the right motivation for further investigation. Therefore, such a mutually stimulating encounter may be described as a walking together on a path, rather like the disciples on their way to Emmaus. While realizing our limited ability to understand perfectly, we help each other to deepen our insights by reflecting also on the contributions of the other one. In the course of such a walking, searching or even wrestling together with the same or similar questions of meaning and truth, a deep mutual appreciation or even friendship may develop despite the difference of religion which remains a wound in our human relationships. Mutual trust needs to have been established in order to stimulate each other through inter-religious dialogue to come to more profound and comprehensive insights. The way to such new and dynamic relationships is a long one, and those who stand aside merely watching or theorizing – and not to mention those who are just criticizing – will not be able to grasp what is really going on. We will therefore reflect on the “long march” toward this new approach to dialogue.

Edwin: What do you think that the world at large can learn from Indian experience?
Samuel: Our willingness to build relationships through common study and sometimes through common silence. We may not pray publicly together, for many reasons. Prayer follows conviction. But we can sometimes keep silence together. We can certainly look together at the sacred texts of different traditions. We can watch how other people handle their sacred texts and their rituals and learn from that. And in that process we become able to recognise some kind of integrity and some kind of depth in one another. It doesn't mean I say, 'Oh well, you must be right.' But I can at least say, 'I know you're serious.' And that's dialogue for me – the recognition of the serious. And therefore if we find we can do things together -- in servicing, witnessing, peace-making, then it will come out of depths, not shallows.

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