Christians in Pakistan can teach us about interfaith dialogue

Church of Scotland Interfaith Officer Mirella Yandoli recently visited Pakistan toattend the 50th anniversary of the Christian Study Centre in Rawalpindi. While there Mirella wanted to see how Christians are faring as a minority religious group in a majority Muslim country. What she found was a community that understands the importance of interfaith dialogue and has something to teach all of us about reaching out our neighbours.

Candle lighting in Pakistan
Mirella, (at left) joins in the candle lighting ceremony

A dense fog obscured much of the scenery during my recent visit to Pakistan. From the moment we landed to the evening we spent driving to Lahore with absolutely no visibility, the fog made its presence felt. This gloomy weather was highly unseasonal and was wreaking havoc across the country, with lethal road accidents and hundreds of people being taken to hospital due to breathing difficulties in Lahore’s thick yellow smog.

Last year over 60,000 people died due to the highly toxic air pollutants plaguing Pakistan’s cities.

This dark and dank weather was in complete contrast to the illuminating and joyful visit I experienced and the hospitality I received. I had travelled to Pakistan in my capacity as the Church of Scotland’s Interfaith Officer along with Sally Spencer, a minister in the Methodist Church. I had always wanted to go to Pakistan. This partly stems from an interest in the culture and history, prompted in particular by the 70th anniversary of the country’s independence this year.

My desire to understand the culture and history better comes also from my interactions with Scotland’s Muslim community as well over half have Pakistani roots. The chief reason for my visit was to get closer to comprehending how the minority Christian community (just under 2%) relates to the majority Muslim communities as well as other minority faiths.

Church of Pakistan unites Christians

The event I was travelling for was the 50th anniversary of the Christian Study Centre in Rawalpindi. This centre emerged in the midst of Pakistan’s Ecumenical movement which united the Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian denominations to become the Church of Pakistan in 1970. Chiefly founded to give Christians in the region the opportunity and space to explore their faith with others, it includes an extensive library.

As the centre developed it began to look more closely at the challenges posed by interfaith relations and the goal of interfaith harmony in a country that was becoming more Islamic in its self-identity and expression. This focus looked at improving the lives of Christians and giving them more opportunities to safely dialogue with their neighbours at both the grassroots and leadership levels.

Today they do a great deal of outreach work, training Christians and Muslims in non-violent communication and have had a great deal of success in engaging with Muslims who identify or used to identify as extremists.

The anniversary was marked by a conference that looked at the future of dialogue in the region and was full of challenges to those present who hailed from a European context.

Interfaith dialogue is crucial

Here in the UK, it is easy to see dialogue as something we can, if we wish, opt into as an act of interest, hospitality or generosity, but it is largely to be side-lined in favour of more pressing needs such as shrinking congregations, roof repair and poverty relief.

For many Christians in Pakistan interfaith dialogue is simultaneously more risky and also more essential way of bearing witness to their faith and of reaching out to the majority for recognition and support. As a minority it is easy to prefer to draw in and avoid interacting with the majority faith around you.

The Christian Study Centre argues that this will not help the Christian community to progress itself as it has to respond to the context it finds itself in. Isolation will also not help with fighting for justice both for themselves and for Pakistanis more generally and, most importantly, they will never be better understood by their Muslim neighbours if they don’t talk to them.

It is much harder to hate your neighbour if you have a grasp of where they’re coming from. Essentially this act of dialogue has vulnerability at its core and was an inspiring way to understand interfaith relations as a process of sharing our vulnerability, as citizens of any country, believers in any faith and most importantly as humans living in a complex world.

Instead of seeing interfaith relations as something extra and separate to the life of the Church, we can learn from the Christian Study Centre who sees engaging with the ‘other’ as embedded into the life of the church and the individual believer. They see it as a crucial way to reach out to the majority and be better understood by those who have the power to shape their lives and normalise relations.

An act of bravery

The importance of dialogue is clear to those engaged in it however for the wider Christian community it is also an act of bravery and resistance to the temptation to withdraw from the majority and isolate themselves for self-preservation. The fear of being misunderstood or misinterpreted has to be overcome in order to reach mutual understanding between communities.

As Christians in Scotland, where we are the majority and have historically been more powerful, we have much to learn from this act of courage in persistently reaching out. We don’t need to dialogue with other faiths for any reason other than in the spirit in sharing our faith and learning from others but in doing so, we should see this as integral to the life of the church, much like it is at the Christian Study Centre.

After the conference I flew south through the fog to Multan which is a city known for its beautiful Sufi shrines. We were hosted by Bishop Leo and his wife Sadaf who took us on excursions to visit literacy projects in the diocese.

Cathedral in Multan
The Cathedral in Multan. Mirella is at the centre of the front row wearing a grey headscarf and black trousers.

Prayers from many traditions

The highlight for me was an interfaith gathering at the cathedral with representation from all the major branches of the Muslim community as well as a representative from the Hindu community.

The gathering opened with prayers from different faith traditions and then different speakers reflected on the need to work for peace in their communities. Many spoke of the challenges they faced within their communities as they pursued relations with those outside and others focused on particular projects. We then went outside to the front of the cathedral and lay flowers and lit candles together to pray for all the victims of terror around the world.

On the Saturday we had the chance to visit the Sufi shrines which hold the mausoleums of several saints. Whereas in the past UK visitors to the Multan church have gone as tourists, this time we were invited by Almin Gilaneh, the shrine keeper, to share refreshments with him first, and he showed us around the area.

This connection has been made as a direct result of the interfaith work started by the Multan Diocese and the friendships that have been made. Receiving such hospitality whilst under close watch of the military security guards, ever fearful of our safety as western visitors, was particularly poignant.