Challenges to Christian Muslim Relations in Pakistan
Fr James Channan OP
Pakistan is confronted with many challenges and crises. On the one hand, there are people who are determined to promote peace, justice, human rights, reconciliation, healing, interreligious dialogue and equality for all with discrimination towards none. On the other hand, there are people and forces that are contrary to peace. They keep on promoting terrorism, extremism, fanaticism, violence, injustice, and conflicts of all sorts based on religious, ethnic, political, geographical and linguistic affiliations. We are living in very challenging times.
Historical background of Christianity in Pakistan
Since the creation of Pakistan, Christians have remained a tiny minority of 3.5 million (2%), with Muslims forming an overwhelming majority of 180 million (96%). There are 7 Catholic Dioceses and 8 Church of Pakistan (Protestant) Dioceses.
The character of Pakistan underwent a radical change with the military coup of General Muhammad Zia al-Haq in July 1977. He led Pakistan to become a strict ‚‘Islamic‘ state through a change in the Constitution. Pakistani minorities were removed from the main political stream through the apartheid system of ‘Separate Electorates’. The Separate Electorates system made Christians and all other minorities into second class citizens. Zia al-Haq was the person responsible for creating hatred and violence in the name of religion. He suppressed our basic human rights and our dignity and violated our religious freedom. He supported militancy in the country, providing weapons to militant groups. Through the efforts of minorities and constant criticism and condemnation of the system, it was finally abolished by another military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, in 2002.
There are 4 main challenges we are confronted with. They are:
1. Different Interpretations of Islam: That is, conflicting views between different versions of Islam, which are also linked to cultural values and social norms. These impinge on understandings of the role of minorities in an Islamic state, the implementation of Sharia, Jihad, the role of women in society, and so on.
2. Misuse of religion in conflicts: This means the use of Islam by politicians and governments for political ends, like misinterpreting the concept of Jihad – an idea that the Americans, Pakistanis and others invoked to launch the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. The Pakistani army invoked the same idea in its political objectives in Indian Kashmir, thereby inviting and inciting the people to violence and the exclusion of others. This also is at the root of Indo-Pakistan tensions.
3. Misplaced perceptions of non-Muslims: This includes rigid, clichéd views of people from the West and followers of other faiths, such as the stereotyping of Hindus, Jews, and Christians. Another related dimension of this phenomenon is the sense of superiority among Muslims, who, because of training and teachings, consider Christians, Hindus and other non-Muslims to be lesser Pakistanis. I would also like to add the biased syllabus which is taught to children in the schools. It presents a very negative picture of Christians and Hindus. There are misrepresentations of their religious beliefs. As a result they are looked down upon.
4. Crisis of identity: This means that people are not really sure how to prioritize their identity, i.e., whether they are Pakistanis first, Punjabis first, Balochis first, Muslims or Christians first. They have failed to live as one nation and are still divided along ethnic lines. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda-inspired ideology has added another dimension to this conflict.
Some successes in meeting these challenges
Our Christian community is very vocal, and it raises its voice against the injustice and discrimination done to it, as well as to other religious minorities that are victimized because of gender and caste. We have been playing and continue to play a very prominent role in the field of education through our schools and colleges. Christians are running two types of schools—English- medium and Urdu-medium. The English Medium schools are mainly for economically well-off Muslims and Christians. It is a great service and witness by Christians. Several heads of States and Prime Ministers, such as Ms. Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Shaukat Aziz and Yousaf Raza Gillani, and Presidents such as General Pervez Musharraf and Asif Ali Zardari have been educated in our Christian schools and colleges. Several other top officials are the former students of Christian educational institutions.
The Christian community is a pioneer in promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue. This has been going on since the birth of Pakistan in 1947 at different levels and in different forms, such as dialogue of life, dialogue of words, dialogue of deeds, dialogue of religious experience and dialogue among intellectuals. An official dialogue commission known as “National Commission for Christian Muslim Dialogue” (Rabita Commission) was established in 1985 by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, with Bishop John Joseph as its first Chairperson and myself as Executive Secretary. Such dialogue commissions were also established at the diocesan level as well.
Some Dialogue Initiatives
Christian Study Center, Rawalpindi
This center was established around 1967 by the Protestant Churches, with the exclusive aim of promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue. The CSC is ecumenical in nature. It organizes seminars, workshops and conferences on peace building, education, human rights and Christian-Muslim dialogue. It also publishes a magazine called “Al-Mushir” (The Councilor), with articles on peace and harmony between Christians and Muslims. The CSC has been carrying on this work very successfully.
Dominican Peace Center, Lahore
This center is another very important institution which is playing a significant role in spite of all the difficulties we are confronted with. A couple of Dominican friars are active in Christian-Muslim dialogue, and they are well known both nationally and internationally for promoting peace and interfaith dialogue. The climax of this Dominican apostolate was manifested in the building of a ‘Peace Center’ in Lahore, which was inaugurated and blessed on the 28th of November, 2010 by His Eminence, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican.
On that grace-filled occasion, many notable Christian personalities were in attendance: the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Adolfo Titu Yllana, the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan, Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha, President, Catholic Bishops Conference Pakistan, Bishop Andrew Francis, Chairman, National Commission for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism, Bishop Rufin Anthony, Bishop of Islamabad/Rawalpindi Diocese, Bishop Alexander John Malik from the Church of Pakistan (Protestant) and Fr Abid Habib, OFM Cap. President of the Major Religious Superiors Leadership Conference. From the Muslim side, there was Maulana Adbul Khabir Azad, Grand Imam of the second largest mosque in Pakistan, Badshahi Mosque in Lahore (this mosque is so large that 100,000 people can offer prayers at a time), along with several other dignitaries. It was a manifestation of how important this apostolate is and how people of good will, both Christians and Muslims, are taking the challenge of Christian Muslim dialogue very seriously.
From the beginning, it was my dream to build such a center, and it gave me immense joy to see this dream become a reality. With myself as Director, we regularly organize meetings, seminars and conferences. The Center has already earned a good reputation at both the national and international levels. In this Peace Center, we organize and celebrate International Days, such as the International Day of Peace, International Women’s Day, the International Day of Rural Women, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, World Interfaith Harmony Week, and International Labor Day. Festivals of Christians and Muslims, such as Christmas and Eid al-Fitr, are jointly celebrated. We publish a quarterly magazine called Umang. The launching ceremony for new publications is also arranged here. This includes three of my books: the English “Christian Muslim Dialogue in Pakistan”, and two Urdu books entitled “Pakistan Main Masihi Muslim Mukalama” (Christian Muslim Dialogue in Pakistan) and “Muhabat Ka Rasta” (Path of Love).
We have also established a library which offers a good range of books on different topics, both Christian and Islamic. The ‘Nostra Aetate Foundation’ from the Vatican has sent books to the Center on Christian teachings on mysticism and commentaries and encyclicals. We hope to further enhance the activities of our Peace Center with programs to promote peace, dialogue and harmony. We plan to further build our library into a good resource for all who want to do research on peace, capacity building, peace education, peace building and Catholic social teachings.
United Religions Initiative (URI)
The URI is another organization working to promote interfaith dialogue, harmony, justice and peace. URI is an international organization operating in 82 countries. There are 43 URI CCs (Cooperation Circles) in Pakistan. They try their best to build a culture of peace, healing and reconciliation. URI is a registered NGO with the UN, and its representative there, Ms. Monica Willard, is the UN President of the Religious NGOs. The Regional Office of the URI is at located at the Peace Center in Lahore. “The purpose of the United Religions Initiative is to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”
To further enhance this important work of Christian-Muslim dialogue, two Muslim scholars - Mr. Sohail Ahmed Raza, Director of Interfaith Relations at Minhaj al-Quran International and Dr. Muhammad Zaman, Professor at Forman Christian College (Chartered University) in Lahore, were sent to Rome after receiving a Vatican scholarship from the Nostra Aetate Foundation to study Christianity at various universities, such as at Pontifical Gregoriana University, St Thomas Aquinas University (Angelicum) and the Pontifical Institute of Islamic Studies and Arabic Language (PISAI). Mr. Sohail successfully completed his studies this year in June and came back as a transformed person. He is contributing immensely in promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue. Prof. Muhammad Zaman is studying in Rome right now and will complete his studies in June and return to Pakistan.
The Church of Pakistan Bishops (Protestant) are also vigorously promoting justice, peace, religious freedom and dialogue among religions. The Rt. Rev. Dr. Alexander John Malik, Bishop of Lahore diocese, and The Rt. Rev. Samuel Robert Azriah, Bishop of the Raiwind diocese and Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, have established interreligious dialogue along with justice and peace committees. They are ardent promoters of ecumenical dialogue. The Catholic Church and other Churches also observe the Week of Christian Unity from 18 to 25 January every year. Several seminars, conferences and prayer services are conducted to observe this week of Christian unity in a befitting manner.
It is worth mentioning that our Muslim brothers and sisters are also very much in favor of dialogue among religions and cultures. Several dialogue organizations have been established by Muslims, such as Maulana Abdul Khabir Azad, Hafiz Zubair Ahmed Zaheer, Maulana Javed Akbar Saqi, Allama Zubair Abid, Hafiz Muhammad Tahir Mehmood Asharafi, Pir Shafat Rasool Noori, and Mualana Hafeez Jalandhry. This is a good omen. These religious leaders have organized and participated in many interfaith conferences, both in Pakistan and around the world. They are ardent promoters of human rights, religious freedom, interfaith dialogue and respect for all. Very often they appear on TV to ease tensions which arise among Christians and Muslims, and between Hindus and Muslims.
The Christian community is playing an important role in politics, although further improvements could be hoped for. I would like to mention our pride and hero Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti. He was an international personality, a well recognized and respected political leader, a human rights activist, and a promoter of justice, equality, peace, religious freedom, interfaith dialogue and ecumenism. As Federal Minister of Religious Minorities, he was able to convince the government to approve 4 seats for minorities in the Senate, declare the 11th of August as Minorities Day, and establish a 5 % minority quota in the federal services. He also played a leading role in abolishing the apartheid system of Separate Electorates. He was vocal in criticizing the misuse of the controversial blasphemy laws. He was assassinated by militants on the 2nd of March, 2011 in Islamabad. I am sure his sacrifice will always be remembered with much admiration. I hope and pray that one day he will be declared a saint and a martyr by the Catholic Church.
Mr. Akram Masih Gill has served as State Minister in the Ministry of National Harmony. The Ministry’s purpose is to promote harmony, peace and dialogue among people of different religions and especially among Christians and Muslims. Mr. Paul Bhatti has served as the Advisor to the Prime Minister for this National Harmony Ministry. He is also making efforts on behalf of peace and interfaith dialogue.
The Ministry of National Harmony organized several conferences under the leadership of Akram Masih Gill and Paul Bhatti. One of the most significant of these was the National Conference on the theme of “Living Together with Diversity: Inter-faith and Inter-Cultural Dialogue” (20th of February, 2013) in which His Excellency, Raja Pervaiz Asharaf, Prime Minister of Pakistan, was the Chief Guest. I was honored to speak on behalf of Christians at this conference, where I highlighted and emphasized the need for interfaith harmony, justice, equal rights for all and human dignity. After two days, National Harmony ran another National Conference on the 22nd of February on the same topic, and His Excellency, Asif Alif Zardari, the President of Pakistan was the Chief Guest. After these conferences, the ‘Islamabad Declaration’ was issued.
As Chief Guest, Prime Minister Ashraf highly appreciated the efforts in organizing this conference. He said that interfaith harmony and peace are imperative needs in Pakistan. All religions preach a message of peace, love and respect for the rights of the other. No religion preaches the killing of others. This message was also preached by the mystics, and the people liked that very much. There is only a small number of people who have rejected this message of love, peace and harmony. No religion gives me the right to force upon others my will, and to do what I want. The Prime Minister said we must follow our own religions, and we must not force our religious philosophy on others. Let us respect each other’s religions. This is the need of our time. If we do not do it today, then when will we do it? We want to live in peace and reach out for dialogue with our neighbors. Let us take this message to every home, that our religions do not teach us to hate one another. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and all other religions teach and preach a message of love. We must learn to live in peace with the rest of the world. There should never be wars among religions or wars among civilizations.
In his inaugural speech, Dr. Paul Bhatti said that we are all one as a nation and we totally reject all forms of intolerance, hatred and violence done in the name of religion. Our country has become a symbol of terrorism in the world. All of us must work to promote interfaith dialogue and harmony. Mr. Akram Masih Gill, State Minister, emphasized that our government has established this ministry to create a culture of peace.
I was also invited to give a speech on behalf of the Christian community in Pakistan. I emphasized that dialogue among religions is our greatest need in these times. Religious leaders have an important role to play in promoting interreligious dialogue and peace. We must use every forum for this purpose and, in particular, religious leaders must promote this message in places of worship, such as mosques, churches and temples.
During the round table discussion after the break, the following points emerged as very strong recommendations from the “Pakistan Interfaith and Harmony Conference” to the Government of Pakistan. This conference came up with the “Islamabad Declaration”, based on the sharing and suggestions of several Muslim, Christian and Hindu leaders, which included the following:
1. Establish an Interfaith Dialogue Council in which prominent personalities of all religions will be represented.
2. Special chapters must be part of the education curricula in the schools, covering interreligious dialogue and fundamental teachings on peace, love, tolerance and reconciliation with other religions (e.g. Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and others).
3. The government must take appropriate measures to prevent the misuse of blasphemy laws. More than 1.200 persons (men, women and children) have been accused and booked under these laws (295 B and 295 C) to settle personal scores or land disputes.
4. The electronic and print media need to give more coverage to interfaith dialogue and peace programs in the country.
5. The root causes of terrorism, violence and intolerance must be tackled to make Pakistan an abode of peace and harmony.
6. The government of Pakistan must take steps to take the message of interfaith harmony and peace to the grassroots level, forming dialogue groups at district and local levels.
There are many challenges that we are faced with. Such is the situation in which we have to play an important role for the betterment of society, and such is our role as a minority. That in itself is a thing of beauty – we are called to be the “salt of the earth and light of the world.” (cf. Matt.5.13-14). We must never lose our salt and light. We no doubt will have to present the face of the suffering Christ. Our Church is a suffering Church in Pakistan. Persecution of Christians is not something new for us. Christianity has been facing such persecution right from its birth. But suffering is not the end. Our model is Jesus Christ, who suffered, died and rose on the third day. Our sufferings are the same. They do not lead to disappointment or defeat. They lead us to victory. What is required from us is to remain faithful and bear these hardships with courage, determination and commitment. Christ is our model.
May Peace Prevail On Earth!
May Peace Prevail in Pakistan!