Where do you think Muslims and Christians celebrate Christ's birth together? One of the answers is: where it is least expected, in Pakistan.
In December last year, the Gulshan Centre for the Study of Islam and Christianity in Mansehra partnered with a local madrasah (an Islamic religious school) to hold a well-attended carol service with local Christians and Muslims celebrating the birth of Christ – together. And during this Ramadan, the two are organising an iftar dinner, where Christians and Muslims will be breaking the fast together. The centre, which was established by Pakistani Christians in 2009, serves as a platform for Christians and Muslims to discuss both theological issues and everyday ones.
As a Muslim-majority country, Pakistan is often criticised for not caring enough about minority rights or ensuring minorities’ equal participation in political and social processes. There have even been incidents of discrimination, violence and hate against them.
But this is not the only reality in Pakistan. There have always been people and organisations from many religious communities working for communal harmony and interfaith understanding. Christians might be less than two per cent of the total population of Pakistan, for example, but they have undertaken many initiatives to promote interfaith dialogue in the country, especially between themselves and the majority Muslim population.
In 1935, when Pakistan was still a part of India, Jesuit missionaries used Loyola Hall in the eastern city of Lahore as a centre for interfaith dialogue. Another prominent ecumenical institution, the Christian Study Centre, was formed in 1968 in the city of Rawalpindi to provide a platform for Christian and Muslim academics to discuss religious and theological issues, and for people of different religions to converse and co-exist on the basis of mutual friendship, understanding and cooperation.
More recently in 1997, the Christian Study Centre started a project called Social Harmony at the Grassroots Level after buildings and churches in a Christian village, Shanti Nagar in Punjab, were burned and destroyed by a group of religious fanatics. This highly successful programme trains people from different religious communities to resolve conflict peacefully.
Another important partner in religious dialogue is the World Council of Religions (WCR) of Lahore. WCR connects Christian priests and Muslim religious leaders to carry out joint projects focusing on eradicating hate speech and violence in the country by first helping to break down their own stereotypes about one another. They learn about each other and visit each other’s places of worship, discussing common problems they face instead of simply claiming superiority over people of other faiths and encouraging their Christian or Muslim followers to do the same.
These efforts are also being recognised by educational institutions in Pakistan, where there is a growing interest among the student population to learn about other faiths directly from their representatives. For instance, Punjab University in Lahore and Peshawar University have recently started inviting Christian leaders to give talks for graduate students about Christian beliefs and practices.
As a Christian leader, I too have also been asked to be part of the faculty of Islamic and Religious Studies at Peshawar University’s Sheikh Zayed Islamic Centre, as well as a faculty member for Islamic and Religious Studies at Hazara University in the newly named Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Such initiatives are helpful in correcting misperceptions and creating a peaceful environment for Muslim and Christian coexistence in Pakistan.
Interfaith efforts are also present outside of academic or religious institutions. For instance, the Akash Christian Society works toward interfaith harmony by providing medical services, along with other projects, to people in different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Their Kunhar Christian Hospital (KCH) and Cirin Christian Clinic in the Mansehra District, both of which have Christian staff, provide medical services to their patients – mostly Muslims – on a non-profit basis.
These organisations, educational institutions and religious leaders are trying to educate people so that prejudices are removed, making increased interaction possible at every level. Christians, alongside their Muslim brothers, are trying to bring about peace, harmony and love in this beautiful country. Success may come slowly, but if we work hard and work together with sincerity, it will surely come.
* Haroon Nasir is Director of the Gulshan Centre for the Study of Islam & Christianity in Mansehra and a Fulbright alumnus. This article is part of a series on spiritual leaders and interfaith dialogue written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).