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How to survive religious intolerance

Maintaining friendships with Muslims is a tricky business for minorities in Islamic regimes

  • Silent Thinker, Lahore
  • Pakistan
  • February 10, 2012
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The ability to maintain friendships with Muslims is a survival skill for minority Christians in Pakistan, or so I discerned after listening to three Islamic scholars yesterday at the Jesuit-run Loyola Hall in Lahore.

The scholars, foreign Catholics including two priests who teach Islamic studies, shared their experiences and insight on Islam with an eager audience that was sensitive about the subject.

Facing the threats posed to our Christian identity is a challenge each of us has faced since birth in Muslim-dominated country. Stories of Christians suffering for their faith in Pakistan have headlined world news and raised countless unanswered questions among the international community.

I felt my alien status for the first time when I was a fifth grader in a reputed Catholic school. Upon returning from catechism class (which was held for non-Muslim students in a separate room), I found my class fellows joking about pictures of Christ the King in one of my catechism books.

Almost all of us have received invitations to become Muslims by our friends and colleagues. Avoiding questions about converting to Islam is hard even for Church leaders. A senior Dominican priest shared a similar experience during the discussion forum in the program.

“I was in a court when a cleric asked if Islam impressed me. I replied that it has some brilliant features but I prefer to stay a Christian. My legs were shivering for fear of consequences as I spoke,” said Father Raphael Mehnga, who heads an NGO.

Similarly, Sister Marie Cecile Osborne of the Provincial Superior Convent of Jesus and Mary said she senses “superiority and arrogance” while dealing with parents of her students. “I feel paralyzed while sharing my faith with them.”

The panelists in Lahore confessed that the community has to find ways to relate to the majority that work for them in a local context. Still, they urged the audience to “talk and work” with Muslims even amid difficult circumstances including a biased media and an increasing intolerant society.

Priests involved in interfaith initiatives in the country unanimously agree that such dialogue has its limit. While going deeper in discourse on Quranic teachings, there comes a point beyond which you can’t proceed, they say.

I learned about Islam and its practices from my childhood Muslim friends. Watching them in Shia funeral processions is something I do every Muharram, the Month of Mourning. Nowadays one of my best sources for learning about the Prophet Muhammad is my favorite columnist. A few Islamic modernists are even forced to stay abroad for their revivalist speeches and television programs.

Javed Ahmed Ghamdi, a former member of the Council of Islamic Ideology that is responsible for giving legal advice on Islamic issues to the Pakistan government and the parliament, has fled to Dubai for his reformist views. He is one of the few Muslim scholars who refuted capital punishment for blasphemy with Qur'anic references.

Similarly biased online forums and insulting comments on Facebook have targeted Hasan Nisar, a syndicated analyst who hosts an opinion-based television program on contemporary Pakistan. “I have to travel with my gun,” he once stated.

Jesuit Father Herman Roborgh, who spent eight years in Lahore learning Arabic and Urdu, witnessed a similar tragedy.

“One of my teachers of Arabic was gunned down by unknown motorcyclists simply because he rejected violent jihad (the Islamic concept of struggle),” said the professor from Melbourne College of Divinity.

These are the people with whom Islam genuinely belongs. The Church should initiate movements to support such non-Christian leaders struggling to tame a religiously obsessed society. The government should try to adapt every possible safety measures for such scholars.

Dealing with a religiously biased society can be easy if the Church extends support and collaborates with Muslims who reject any interpretation of Islam in light of violence and vengeance. It is better than inviting clerics who repeat rhetoric of peace and harmony in Church and run interreligious seminars but speak otherwise outside.

However this has to be done with extreme caution (preferably under the blanket of human rights) so as not to produce reciprocal results.

Silent Thinker is a pseudonym used by a Catholic commentator in Lahore
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