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The Australian missionary who walked with Indian Muslims

Jesuit Father Paul Jackson fondly remembered for spearheading Christian-Muslim dialogue in India

Joe Palathunkal

Joe Palathunkal

Updated: July 14, 2020 11:56 AM GMT
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The Australian missionary who walked with Indian Muslims

Australian-born Jesuit Paul Jackson, who promoted Christian dialogue with Muslims in South Asia died on July 5 in Patna, capital of the eastern Indian state of Bihar.

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Jesuit Father Paul Frederick Joseph Jackson who died at the age of 83 on July 5 in Patna’s Holy Family Hospital lived his whole life to unite the communally divided India through a light he discovered in the 14th century Sufi saint Sharafuddin Ahmad Maneri.

Born June 11, 1947 in Brisbane, Australia, Paul Jackson, the only son of his parents, joined the Society of Jesus in 1956 and reached India as a member of the Hazaribag Jesuit Province in 1961 at a time when northern India was still suffering from the aftershocks of the communal riots of 1947 that divided British India into the two independent nations of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Soon after Jackson landed in India, he was stunned when a fellow Jesuit became a victim of that hostility within the tribal region where he was supposed to work. During the Holy Week on Tuesday 24 March 1964, Jesuit Father Herman Rasschaert from Belgium was slaughtered along with hundreds of others who had taken refuge in a mosque at Gerda, Kutungia, in today’s Jharkhand state.

Rasshaert’s only crime was that he tried to save hapless people who took refuge in the mosque. Indeed, when this writer visited the area, local tribal people showed a well where dead bodies had been dumped at the time. This made the mission territory in which Jackson worked very much akin to a description by E.M. Forster in A Passage To India: “The two flames approach and strive to unite, but cannot, because one of them breathes air, the other stone.

It soon became Jackson’s mission to unite these two opposing flames through the insightful light that emanated from the Sufi mystic Shrafuddin Maneri of Bihar. He may well have taken to heart what Maneri said: “All the religions are true at their root but their blind followers introduce extraneous matters.”

To expose these blind followers, first of all he decided to work among the largest religious minority of India when “narrow domestic walls” were coming up against them everywhere. In Jackson’s own words: “One of the most pivotal moments in my life is when I said to myself, 'let me try to do something for the Muslims.'”

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