The Christian Study Center (CSC), Rawalpindi is celebrating 50 years of ministry, 1967-2017, with various special events and programs throughout the jubilee year to mark this milestone. One of these was an Interfaith Harmony seminar which was held in the CSC on 5-8 November 2017 which I was privileged to attend.
From its inception, the CSC laid great importance on interfaith dialogue and throughout the last 50 years has faithfully worked on this commitment to dialogue, despite many difficulties and real danger from extremist groups. This seminar was both a looking back by reflecting on this experience, and also a looking forward in attempting to find pathways for continued engagement in this vital mission in Pakistan and across the world in very troubled times. This reflection was done by members of the partner churches of the CSC throughout the last 50 years and who were present at the seminar: – the Church of Pakistan, the Catholic Church in Pakistan, World Council of Churches, Church of Scotland, Finish Evangelical Lutheran Mission, Church of Sweden, Church of the Netherlands, Methodist Church of the UK. It was primarily a reflection by Christians on Interfaith Harmony, with only one paper by a Muslim, Hermeneutical Shifts in the Islamic Traditions in Pakistan: Their Political Impact on Minorities by Dr Aayesha Rafiq, head of the Islamic Studies Department of Fatima Jinnah Women’s University, Islamabad.
The seminar was inaugurated by a welcome address from the Director of the CSC, Jennifer Jag Jivan, followed by prayers, a blessing and comments from Archbishop Joseph Coutts, Catholic Archbishop of Karachi and Bishop Humphrey Peters of Peshawar, Moderator of the Church of Pakistan. Then, Bishop Samuel Azariah, Chair of CSC gave a welcome address and brief history of the CSC. This was followed by the Keynote paper, History of Christian-Muslim Dialogue: Paradigms for the Contemporary Changing Dimensions from Charles Amjad Ali, former Director of the CSC, a paper which really set the scene for the whole seminar.
The following two and a half days had a wide variety of topics from people deeply engaged in interreligious dialogue in many parts of the world; the papers were interspersed with lively discussion, sharing and questions.
Firstly, we learned about interfaith activity from two different contexts, Pakistan and China. Fr James Channan, a man with long years of service in this field, gave a wide-ranging input on interreligious dialogue in Pakistan from various initiatives undertaken to the obstacles in the way of this work. Mr Mengfei Gu, Deputy Secretary General of the National Committee of the Three Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China spoke on interfaith dialogue, its challenges and opportunities in China. The seminar then engaged the topic of how the immigration crisis in Europe and traditional Islamic hermeneutical shifts in Pakistan affect Christian-Muslim dialogue in a paper by Christine Amjad Ali, but read by her daughter, Shaheen, as Christine could not get a visa in time.
Secondly, there were a number of very interesting inputs from members of the partner churches present on a whole variety of interesting initiatives undertaken all over the world. Elisa Nousianien of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission shared on their peace and reconciliation projects with interfaith components integrated in Myanmar, Syria and the Middle East as well as work back home in Finland and also helping some projects in the diocese of Peshawar. Mirrella Yandolli of the Church of Scotland shared on the work on Interfaith Scotland, Scotland Faiths Together for Refugees and work with youth. This was followed by Clare Amos of the World Council of Churches (WCC), who is based in Geneva, sharing on the work of the WCC in the area of dialogue in encouraging member churches to be active in this ministry, providing materials in dialogue to the churches and developing bilateral relationships with other religions. Sally Spencer of the Methodist church in the UK shared on their interfaith initiatives, as did Johan Hasselgren of the Church of Sweden, both as home in Sweden and overseas.
Thirdly, four papers under the theme of Approaches and Responses to Interfaith Dialogue/Harmony were presented, which were more theological in focus. Juan Carlos Pallardel S.J., who is based in Lahore presented on the Vatican’s Response to interfaith Dialogue in the Present Global Context, referencing specifically paragraphs 250-254 of Evangelii Guadium, where Pope Francis refers to interreligious dialogue. Willem Johannes of the Church of Netherlands shared his idea of moving from discursive dialogue to ‘diapraxis’, which he had practical experience of in both The Hague and Kenya. Dr. Martha Frederiks, Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Utrecht University presented her paper Recent Shifts and Developments in Christian-Muslim Relations with insights gained from her interfaith work in Gambia and the Netherlands. The final paper in this section was from Kor Grit, a PhD student in a collaborative project between Utrecht University and the CSC, Contextualizing Pakistani Christianity through interfaith dialogue at CSC. He traces the various approaches of the CSC to interfaith dialogue over the 50 years in response to the changing Pakistani Christian context, which is shaped by its missionary heritage, islamization and exclusion.
The final part of the seminar was trying to collate the learning and experiences of the previous three days in order to seek deeper and new ways of promoting interfaith dialogue and harmony in our particular places of work.
The Christian Study Center is due a debt of gratitude for 50 years of committee service to the Church in Pakistan; and, despite many obstacles, in particular for its untiring commitment to promote interfaith harmony, which is a greater need than ever in our broken and troubled world.