Building Communities of Peace: Muslim-Christian Relations in Asia
By New Age Islam News Bureau
13 Feb 2014
One of the baffling challenges that the religionists the world over face today is that of inter-faith relations in general and Muslim-Christian ties in particular. Given the history of intense conflicts and grave injustices perpetrated by both communities, the adherents of the two largest religions of the world are laden with the burden of harsh memories. While the history witnessed the bitter reality of the Crusades, the present plight of Christians in many parts of the Muslim world continues to create misconceptions about Islam in the minds of many Christians. In such an environment which actually seems to promote division, a two-day international seminar on “Building Communities of Peace: Muslim-Christian Relations in Asia” gave glad tidings to the mainstream peace-loving Muslims and Christians. This event was jointly organised by Henry Martyn Institute (Hyderabad), Zakir Hussain Institute of Islamic Studies (New Delhi), Indialogue Foundation (New Delhi) and Islamic Studies Association (Delhi).
The first session of the program was based on the theme: “Christian- Muslim Relations in the Asian neighbourhood”. Dr. Francis Pushpa Anbu SVD spoke on “Christian-Muslim Relations in India”. He said that “today Christians in India, though a minority, are called to insert themselves into the wider reality of the nation, with its multi-religious flavour.” He went on saying that “Though India is a melting pot of diverse religions; it is also a place of mutual interaction, dialogue and appreciation of everything plural that forms the fabric of our country. Every Christian in India is called to focus on the experience of diversity of religions and try to respond to this dynamic scenario that invites an accountable and creative response.” “Christians in India can no longer isolate themselves, for the Church has opened its doors for others. The Church has moved from the attitude of rigidity and exclusivism to openness and inclusivism”, he said.
Francis Pushpa traced back the beginning of the Muslim-Christian relations in India and said that “the relationship between Christians and Muslims in India was established right in the early era of Islam.” He continued: “soon after the death of Prophet Muhammad, the newly converted Muslim Arab traders, enhanced business ties with India along the Kerala sea coast. Making use of the opportunity, they also invited some of the local inhabitants to Islam. That’s how today we find a large number of Muslims in Kerala, especially in its northern part, and the Muslims there are called as ‘Mahpillas’ (great children). As the situation demanded, Christians and Muslims lived side by side, without much tension. Their relationship was friendly and cordial. That was the beginning of social interaction between Christians and Muslims in India.”
Francis Pushpa continued: “We can only be proud of the past and look forward in hope. By and large, Catholic-Muslim relations are quite peaceful. Definitely, we need to open more opportunities and avenues. Our schools and colleges could be gateways to dialogue with Muslims. We ought to realise that Muslims have better feelings of friendship and association with Christians. The Holy Quran reiterates: “… and nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say, ‘We are Christians, because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant” (5:82). The appreciation of the Muslims is not because they merely called themselves Christians, but that they were such a sincere Christians that they appreciated Muslim virtues, as did the Abyssinians to whom Muslim refugees went, during the persecution in Mecca in 615 AD”.
In his concluding remarks, Francis Pushpa said that “in our effort to promote dialogue, harmony, peace and collaboration with Muslims, we could take recourse to Sufism. We could recommend regular courses on Sufism in our seminaries and houses of formation. In the present day of secularism, materialism, consumerism, relativism, self-centeredness and opportunism, Sufism can be of great help to ward off these evil tendencies that prevail in our society today.”
Fr. James Channan, O.P, a leading catholic priest in Pakistan, Director, Peace Centre and the author of Christian- Muslim Dialogue in Pakistan, sent a paper to the seminar on Christian- Muslim ties in Pakistan, in which he said “Dialogue is an important postulate of the Catholics in today’s Pakistan. We cannot separate it from the two fold mission of the Catholic Church: Dialogue and Proclamation. The mission goes side by side around the globe and in Pakistan as well. Accomplishing this mission of interfaith dialogue means to accept that followers of other religions exist and deserve respect, understanding, peaceful coexistence and harmony.” He added saying that “interfaith dialogue does not mean that we have to agree upon every postulate that other party believes in. We may differ but we respect the differences and willingly discuss the burning issues we are confronted with in a bid to overcome them.”
Fr. James Channan traced the origin of Christian-Muslim dialogue in Pakistan and said that the initiative of dialogue in Pakistan was first taken in a formal way by the Jesuits by establishing Loyola Hall in Lahore in 1965, with Fr. Robert Butler SJ as its founder director.” He further said that the “the Protestant Church of Pakistan is very active in promoting this harmonious apostolate at different levels and has launched numerous programs throughout Pakistan.”
Recalling the nefarious terrorist attacks on All Saints Church in Peshawar where two extremist suicide bombers caused the death of 126 Christians and injured over 150 of them, Fr. James said that the Muslims of Peshawar came first to give aid to the injured Christians. “There were demonstrations all over the country by many Muslim organisations. Minhaj ul Quran, founded by the moderate Pakistani Islamic cleric, Dr. Tahirul Qadri who already issued a Fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombing, took out demonstrations in front of the Lahore Press Club in which hundreds of Muslim men, women and children participated”, he said.
He continued: “In the context of Pakistan, there are so many situations that need healing. There is a dire need to promote mutual respect, understanding and dialogue among people of different faiths, especially Muslims and Christians. We see that our poor church in Pakistan is a church of the poor. But we, despite our suffering, sometimes being discriminated by others, need to promote dialogue and harmony.”
Describing the genesis of the present conflicts in Pakistan, he said “that the virulent misuse of religion by politicians, such as misinterpreting the Islamic concept of Jihad, incites some people to violence and the exclusion of others. This also lies at the root of Indo-Pakistan tensions” He added saying that “we are reaping the bitter fruits of radical Islam promoted by the military dictator General Muhammad Zia ul Haq to prolong his illegitimate rule.”
Fr. Joe Kalathil SJ presented his views on Pakistan and India Friendship Forum (PAIFF) and considered it a non-violent movement for peace initiated by the Catholic Church in North India. He said that “the reality one needs to keep in mind while taking this movement ahead is the famous saying of Napoleon the Great: The world suffers today, not from the violence of bad people, but from the silence of good people”. He stressed the need to make the dormant, silent majority wake up and speak up for ‘peace and friendship’. “If the ‘silent’ majority of peace-loving people of both the nations are activated and made aware of their right to live in peace, they can refrain from the politicians taking undue advantage and can stop both the governments fighting with each other”, he said.
Expressing his concerns over the plight of Christians in Pakistan, he said that “the blasphemy law is a ‘sword’ hanging over the head of every Christian, nay, over every member of minority communities of Pakistan. Just a small disagreement with any member of the majority community is sufficient enough to turn a member of the minority community into an easy prey to blasphemy law. Either the police will arrest him and put him in jail or a mob will kill him or attack the entire minority community. Such a barbaric practice is certainly very depressing, to say the least.” “But the ray of hope is that, he averred, there is some awakening in the majority community, however little it may be. Some of the sensible, moderate and secular-minded Muslims began to stand up defending the minority communities against blasphemy law. Such brave hearts need to be encouraged to expand such awakening. Courageous Muslims like these people are the hope of Pakistan!”.
Fr. Joe Kalathil SJ shared his personal experience of understanding Islam and its stand against pseudo-Islamic fundamentalism. He said: “I have been reading a book called ‘I AM MALALA’ and also came across an article in Indian Express of Saturday, January, 4th, 2014, written by Mr. Khaled Ahmed, a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’. The first reality I came to know from these is that all that is being done in the name of Islam, is not Islam. False accusation and persecution of the minority community is no religion but fundamentalism which is contrary to Islam, and there are courageous Muslims who take a clear stand against it.” He continued: “On one hand, it is depressing to see that Islamist fundamentalism keeps growing. On the other, it is consoling to note that there is an awakening among some Muslims who do raise their voices against fundamentalism, however small this group may be. Such awakened people need to be encouraged and supported in order to strengthen their noble cause. They are the HOPE.”
Professor Leo Lefebure, Georgetown University, Washington, USA, chose to speak on the theme: A New Spirit in Christian-Muslim Relations. He said: “To appreciate the new spirit that Pope Paul brought to Christian-Muslim relations, it is necessary to have a sense of the earlier relationship.” So, he began by briefly noting some characteristics of the “old spirit” of Christian, and in particular, Catholic attitudes towards Muslims and Islam. He pointed out that “at a time of widespread suspicion and hostility, Louis Massignon played a decisive role in developing warm relations with Muslims and in preparing his friend and colleague, Giovanni Battista Montini, for his later papal ministry as Pope Paul VI.” He also briefly mentioned the new path in interreligious relations and religious freedom that was begun by Pope John XXIII. Then he discussed Pope Paul’s involvement in the interreligious events of the momentous year 1964 and noted their impact on the later actions of the Catholic Church and the broader Christian community.
While Padma Shri Professor Mushir ul Hasan enlightened the audience about the lofty ideals set by C.F. Andrews and Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, the two historical luminaries and pioneers of interfaith dialogue in their communities, Padma Shri Professor Akhtarul Wasey, Director, Zakir Hussain Institute of Islamic Studies (JMI) dwelt on new ways for Muslims to relate with Christians in India.
Each presentation was meant for 20 minutes. After all the presentations, there were 50 minutes for clarifications and questions. The program was categorised into five different interesting and interactive sessions and was respectively chaired by Dr. M.M. Abraham, associate director, Henry Martyn Institute, Hyderabad and Dr. Samuel Packiam, Director, Henry Martyn Institute. The first day sessions and programs were held at St. Xavier’s School, Delhi and India Islamic Cultural Centre, while the second day seminar was organised at Mir Anees Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
The program started with recitations from the Bible and the Qur’an. Fr. Tom Kunnunkal, President, Islamic Studies Association, said words of welcome to the guests, while the catholic priest Victor Edwin, research scholar, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, presented the dynamics of the programme.