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The enigma of interfaith harmony in Pakistan

The church needs to make more effort to boost interreligious ties

The enigma of interfaith harmony in Pakistan

A Pakistani man pulls a camel from the back of his motorbike after buying it at a livestock market for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha in Lahore on Sept. 11. (Photo by AFP)

 

This year started off on a high note for interfaith harmony in Pakistan. For the first time in 457 years, Christians had just celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ and Muslims that of the Prophet Muhammad on the same day December 25.

Never before had I seen such colorful parades organized in Lahore on Christmas Eve: camel-riding residents of Lahore wearing ankle-length Arab garments imitated the three kings from the East. 

The festivities continue in the Islamic republic as Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Festival of the Sacrifice on Sept. 12 concludes at about the same time as the three-day long annual Catholic pilgrimage in Mariamabad to celebrate the Sept. 8 feast of the Nativity of Mary.

Just as happened in previous years, Muslims sponsored food and offered colorful dupattas (long scarfs) at the Marian shrine, praying and interceding with the Blessed Mother for special favors. It is in such instances that interfaith dialogue comes to life.

Mary is a revered figure in Islam as the mother of Jesus, who Muslims regard to be a righteous man but not divine. There are 34 direct and indirect references to Mary in the Quran.

In a country plagued by religious persecution, sectarian violence and discrimination, rare examples of religious faiths celebrating their main festivals together offers a positive image of Pakistan.

But church commissions on interreligious dialogue continue with an uphill task all year long.

There is no denying the significant role played by Islamic clerics who regularly attend these seminars and festive dinners. Most of them play key roles in bringing back peace especially in the wake of attacks on Christian settlements.

But many feel the commissions are limited in their scope and have the potential to do more. To begin with, members should step out of selective venues — all of these interfaith gatherings are organized exclusively inside church halls or formation houses — the speakers are always the same too, as are their robotic speeches. The cliches always come out. They talk of "multicolored flowers in a garden."

"Most of the clerics are more interested in getting their group photo published in newspapers," a Catholic bishop told me. "There are certain topics we still cannot touch including the plight of Ahmadis."

I still remember the desperate comments from a priest when suicide bombers attacked two churches in Youhanabad, the biggest Christian slum in the country last year. "The bloodshed poses a big question on interfaith dialogue. Perhaps it has failed," he said.

Church funded peace programs for students are another area of concern.

According to the latest Caritas Pakistan Yearbook, peace clubs are held in 40 schools in three dioceses. The list includes some of the most prestigious schools where quality education, both academic and moral, is being provided.

What good will it do making peace agents out of children who are already educated against violence?

They should go to the madrassas (Islamic schools) where poor children are in need of more awareness and liberal teachings.

 A few Christian NGOs run a peace-building program in such schools and no clashes have been reported between madrassa authorities and coordinators of those projects. Church institutions need to help the government combat extremism by reaching out to mosque schools.

Similarly, the season of Ramadan (the Muslim holy month of fasting) offers the perfect opportunity to organize Iftar dinners. Parishes and Catholic schools must invite neighboring Muslims to eat with them. A simple plate of rice on a family table can bring more closeness than any hotel buffet.

For the past three years, an Anglican Cathedral in Lahore has been organizing prayers for Muslims inside the church compound before breakfast. The Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Faisalabad Diocese is doing the same and others should follow.

The church has to go beyond holding closed circuit meetings. Interreligious seminars, open to the public, should be organized in parishes and Catholic schools in order to counter our biggest challenge: the fundamentalist mindset.

Christian hospitals and schools are already playing a vital role in bringing communities together. They can serve as the best meeting spot for leaders of different faiths. 

Hence, to really make a difference, church funds and efforts should be spent on joint action and events that actually bring about harmony among Muslims and Christians rather than just on speeches and platitudes.

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore.

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