photo: AP
International Muslim-Christian Federation

Promoting Religious Tolerance in Pakistan

In Pakistan, there are frequent attacks on religious minorities. For the past five years, the International Muslim-Christian Federation has been endeavoring to work against this by promoting religious dialogue. Abdul-Ahmad Rashid reports

photo: AP
Christians are not the only target of attacks in Pakistan; there are also frequent clashes between Sunnis and Shiites

​​When it comes to religious tolerance, Pakistan can still be considered a developing country. Although by now there are innumerable groups dedicated to fostering understanding between the religions in this Asian country, a truce between the various faiths is still a long way off.

"In Pakistan, religion is misused as a tool for achieving dubious ends, which is why the country's religious minorities do not feel safe," according to Bishop Samuel Azariah of the "Church of Pakistan."

Joining forces with Muslim scholar Qazi Abdul-Qadir Khamoosh, Bishop Azariah founded the "International Muslim-Christian Federation," MCFI for short, a full year before the attacks of September 11, 2001. The MCFI stands out from all the other organizations in Pakistan due to the progressive orientation of its members, who represent the churches, Islam and human rights groups.

"The organization is something special since it is the only group devoted to interreligious dialogue on the national level and the only one advocating peace. It is a forum made up of both religious and political forces, which is thus influential in the churches and in politics," explains Jutta Werdes from the German "Church Development Service" (Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst - EED), which accompanied the MCFI on a trip to Germany.

"Many of the group's members have close contacts with people in the government and are thus able to exercise a positive influence."

Discrimination against Pakistani Christians

A dialogue between the religions is urgently needed in the Islam-dominated country: in recent years in particular, relations between the various religious communities have been overshadowed by threats and violence. Terrorists have carried out several attacks on churches and Christian schools, in which many lost their lives.

"In fact, Islam teaches that religious minorities should be protected. But there is still a great deal of discrimination against such minorities in Pakistan. Through our activities, we try to prevent discriminatory acts or at least limit them," says Abdul-Qadir Khamoosh.

The religious minorities in Pakistan include Christians and Hindus. The Christians are among the most impoverished members of society. They make up three percent of the population of 140 million. Although Islam in theory guarantees them protection, Christians here have to put up with many disadvantages. The laws discriminate against them, they are barred entry to important administrative offices, and allowed no participation in the army, government or legislative realm.

"There has not been a Christian judge or lawyer here for about twenty or thirty years. In addition, Christians have scant opportunities in terms of schools, jobs and making a living," criticizes Jutta Werdes.

The blasphemy law in effect since 1982, which punishes the "disparagement of the Koran and the Prophet Mohammad" with lifelong imprisonment or even the death sentence, is also used against Christians. Originally, the law was intended to preserve religious harmony, but, especially twenty years ago under Zia ul-Haqq, it was increasingly misapplied in order to exclude minorities such as Christians.

Workshops for religious peace

Strife is also rampant among the country's various Muslim factions. Recently, there have been violent clashes between the majority Sunnis and members of the Shiite minority.

The members of MCFI are attempting to tackle this problem by holding seminars and workshops. They receive no funding for their work from either the Pakistani state or religious institutions. Instead, the members themselves foot the bill.

"We don't need five-star hotels for what we're doing. We would rather meet in public community centers. That's much less expensive, and we can reach more people," explains Khamoosh, underlining the group's idealism.

The group also puts out a monthly magazine, the cost of which is covered by MCFI members. But all of the hard work and effort is worth it in view of the gradually growing recognition the organization enjoys in Pakistan.

Visit to Germany

Bishop Samuel Azariah sounds optimistic: "At the beginning, our work was not easy. The relations between members of the two religious communities, Christian and Muslim, are marked by a strong atmosphere of mistrust. But we had firm convictions and we surged ahead, and now many people have turned to us for help. The government, the opposition, and all Muslim and Christian groups support our work."

The visit to Germany and the exemplary interreligious work they experienced there really impressed the MCFI members, as the Bishop attests:

"We met with the official representatives of the religious communities in Germany in churches and mosques, and what we heard about the freedom of the various communities really impressed us and gave us courage to aim for such progress in Pakistan as well."

Promoting religious tolerance in Islamic schools

Now that the MCFI is receiving a great deal of support on the international level, it is planning a project for the near future in which it will go to the country's Islamic schools and teach the students there about other religions. Muslims in turn will teach classes about their religion at Catholic and Protestant seminaries.

After all, many of the Islamic schools in Pakistan are responsible for sowing the seeds of religious hatred. Abdul-Qadir Khamoosh explains the reason for this:

"Many Islamic religious leaders have only a shallow knowledge of Islam, and much of the ideology they spread does not correspond to the teachings of the Koran." This is also the case when it comes to tolerance of religious minorities, which the Koran expressly advocates.

Here as well, the MCFI would like to work on convincing them of the need for greater understanding. However, when asked about the future of interreligious dialogue in Pakistan, Abdul-Qadir Khamoosh responds cautiously:

"We are optimistic that things will develop and improve. Pessimism is not called for. But in a society in which discrimination and conflicts have been the order of the day for 50 years, things can't simply change overnight. It will take some time until conditions stabilize. We still need to have a great deal of patience."

Abdul-Ahmad Rashid

© 2005

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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