My pilgrimage in IRD started in 1989 in Selly Oaks College, Birmingham, UK, where a group of five Columban Sisters, spent time in preparation for the opening of our new mission in Pakistan which started in 1990. Here we had the privilege of being guided into opening the treasures and challenges of Islam. This course prepared me for my mission and, even now, helps me to look beyond the frequent experiences where there is much darkness and where hope and life are threatened daily.
As a sign of our commitment to dialogue as a Way of Life among the Muslims, we Columban Sisters, decided to live among them and pitch our tent in their midst, much to the consternation of many people who feared for our safety. It seemed a risky decision but here I am 24 years later, still in Pakistan, healthy and happy in a country which is 98% Muslim.
Right from creation and throughout all of history, God has taken the initiative in coming to meet all peoples through a multitude of events, including a rainbow of diverse religions. My own spirituality of inter-religious dialogue is captured beautifully in Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity which was originally entitled The Welcome that makes a Stranger into a Friend. In this celebrated Russian icon, three angels are seated around a table drinking from the same cup, with an empty space in the foreground, set for the guest or stranger. For me, making a stranger into a friend is what inter-religious dialogue is all about. In my experience in Pakistan, sometimes I am the one who receives welcome and hospitality; at other times I am the one who provides the space to welcome our Muslim brothers and sisters who, at first, are strangers but who can be angels bearing God’s message as in the biblical story behind Rublev’s icon.
Media plays an important place in all of our lives, with its instant ‘on the spot’ coverage of changing realities throughout the world. Depending on the issues at stake, it often triggers an immediate response in any part of the globe, for better or for worse. For example, the 2005 publication in Denmark of cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed, P.B.U.H. (Peace Be upon Him), had a real domino effect across the Muslim world and especially here in Pakistan, which is the ‘Homeland of the Muslims’. Such incidents sparks off fear in the Christian communities because of retaliation by the mob as the Christians are a ‘minority’ and termed ‘Western’ and do not feel secure in the country where they were born.
Over the years churches have been burnt, villages attacked and houses and businesses burnt. The most recent attack was the case of two suicide bombers who targeted a church in Peshawar killing 85 worshippers. Such international and national incidents affect us deeply and during 2013 we had to stay indoors for a full month as it was too dangerous for us to risk going out. During this time we had no opportunity to celebrate Eucharist, and we depended on a local person to see to our shopping needs. Each incident reminds us clearly that to be a Christian in Pakistan, and to walk with the Christian community here, is to walk in the footsteps of the Cross.
I often say to myself that it is ok for us missionaries to be fired up with interreligious dialogue but is it really possible to talk to our Pakistani Christians about Dialogue? I was very inspired by Shabaz Bhatti, the only Christian Minister in the Government. He tried to repeal the Blasphemy Law which hangs like a millstone around the necks of Christians, Hindus and Muslims. He vowed to speak for marginalized Christians and other minorities, saying: “I will die to defend their rights. Their threats and warnings will not change my opinion and principles. I only want a place at the feet of Jesus. I want my life, my character and my actions to speak for me and show that I am a follower of Jesus.” His life was taken by a lone gunman in 2011.
The Lord’s work of the Kingdom is woven in and out with such incidents and yet each year we celebrate Christmas night with up to forty Muslim friends and neighbours. This is a tradition that they started from the very beginning of our time here when, to our surprise, they brought us in our first Christmas tree. We have maintained this open-door welcome since.
Also we Columban Sisters here in Pakistan have helped a Muslim couple, both lawyers, to set up an NGO for reaching out to marginalized women. This is a great meeting place for Muslims, Hindus and other Christians who are committed to this particular issue of Justice and Peace. Such wonderful people were once strangers but became God-sent angels when clouds of darkness surrounded my life. Over the years, through such contacts, I have spent much of my life visiting the abandoned women in the local Psychiatric Hospital and also the Women’s Shelter where there is much pain and suffering. All the women in these institutions are Muslims.
For the past twelve years I have also been going to the Women’s Prison where I am accepted by the staff and prisoners and I feel a deep welcome from them all. With the exception of an occasional foreigner imprisoned for drug trafficking, all these women too are Muslims. It is with these abandoned women locked up in institutions that my inter-religious dialogue takes place. I strive to share in their lives and God-experiences. Their unfailing faith in God carries them through, and I am enriched by journeying with them in their struggle. I can see that the God we share together has a big heart!
An exceptional example of “dialogue of life” happened a few years ago after the floods. We encountered a Balochi Tribe who were abandoned by the side of the road for a whole year. Thanks to our generous benefactors we were able to help them stay alive. We gave them tents and within a year built 40 simple houses for them and enabled them get legal ownership of their homes. During the handing-over ceremony of the houses we prayed with them, read from the Bible and invited the Mulvi (Islamic religious leader) to bless the project. This was a beautiful moment of dialogue with shared prayer. When we now visit their village we are showered with blessings from Allah.
Dialogue is not always an easy road to travel. It is a pilgrimage of the heart, a road to personal conversion. This means a letting-go of prejudices and being open to new ways of seeing things and people. These days the Pakistani newspapers call for more dialogue between groups but this will call for a change of heart on all sides and a willingness to walk in the shoes of the other!
Living among Muslims in Pakistan, my companion Jesus is Someone whose uniqueness lies in his unqualified acceptance of others in their differences. He presented all these others who live ‘outside the camp’, who are “not one of us” as models for belief and action. Think of the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Samaritans, lepers, women, publicans and prostitutes. Inspired by this model, I try to keep Rublev’s Trinity before me as I reach out and give to others The Welcome that makes a Stranger into a Friend.