Report on ICRD-MCFI Interfaith Workshops
Five workshops were conducted with Pakistani Christian pastors and Muslim prayers leaders (Imams) in order to:
(1) build relationships between the two faiths
(2) foster interfaith understanding, and
(3) explore how they could cooperate to reduce religious discrimination and violence in Pakistan.
The workshops explored Christian and Islamic values, the stages of development of
religious tolerance and coexistence, protection of human rights and reduction of violence, how to promote interfaith cooperation and to attract public support for doing so, how to cope with difficulties in this field, and how to implement one’s vision of interfaith coexistence.
This initiative grew out of ICRD’s Madressa Teacher Training program in Pakistan, which trained teachers of Islamic schools in religious tolerance, human rights, peace education, critical thinking, and educational enhancement. The interfaith workshops were conducted on the following dates:
1) August 26th to 28th, 2008; Abbottabad (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa)
2) November 18th to 20th, 2008; Gujrat District (Punjab)
3) January 26th to 28th, 2009; Islamabad
4) May 19th to 21st, 2009; Lahore (Punjab)
5) July 28th to 30th, 2009; Lahore (Punjab)
We have witnessed the impact of the workshops in the spirit and vision of interfaith cooperation adopted by the participants; attitudinal changes among the participants; action plans developed by participants to promote interfaith coexistence and reduce extremism; and supportive programs subsequently initiated by the participants.
According to ICRD’s implementing partner, MCFI, “The interfaith workshops have created a new visionary movement to help achieve objectives of betterment and reconstruction of the humanity . . . (This movement aims to establish such a society in which, despite differences and diversity, the human beings should not feel themselves isolated . . . We also introduced new trends among the interfaith workshops’ participants. Before this there was no precedent of interfaith dialogue in Pakistan; therefore, in most of the programs the speakers were seen focusing on their own faiths. We changed this trend by seeking common points in the religions to save humanity . . . These workshops have helped debate a second option in society and its analysis is underway for improvement. The workshop participants are working with a missionary spirit in their regions and the society is in the process of ‘positive change’. This is the purpose of holding workshops, so that we could move together to achieve better results.”
Some of the changes in attitude that we witnessed were truly remarkable. For example, one influential imam from the conflict-torn Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who runs a large madressah, had initially expressed skepticism about interfaith activities. However, following the workshop, he vowed to fully support “interfaith dialogue and peace for the sake of humanity”, subsequently he visited Christians in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to make sure they were not being threatened and to offer his assistance when and if they need, and started a Peace Commission in his region that has grown to include more than 150 members. This Commission has facilitated interfaith seminars and outreach at the community level to promote peace and reconciliation. This particular imam (prayer leader) has continued this work despite attacks on his business by the Taliban. Christian participants demonstrated similar transformations. For example, two pastors said that before attending the workshop, they had never thought that Christianity and Islam could cooperate to “do something for the betterment of the humanity”, due to their ideological differences. However, they subsequently stated that “this workshop had given assurance and hope that the followers of the two religions would have to start a joint struggle to lessen bitterness and atrocities in society.”
Plans for interfaith promotion:
The participants have also developed plans for promoting interfaith cooperation and reducing extremism in areas of instability and conflict. The following steps have been proposed:
(1) Small groups of religious leaders will be sent to “sensitive” areas, where they will hold meetings with other religious leaders to advocate interfaith cooperation and the reduction of extremism.
(2) Following these meetings, programs will be developed to decrease the level of social support for religious extremists and militants.
(3) Participants will work to halt the dissemination of militant and extremist messages in areas affected by terrorism.
(4) Religious leaders will aim to “convince the masses to defy extremists instead of surrendering to their demands.”
Participants have already begun various initiatives to promote interfaith coexistence:
(1) As related by MCFI, “The ulema (Muslim scholars) in their Khutba Juma (Friday prayer sermons) and the pastors in their Sunday services talk about mutual understanding and respect, tolerance, and peace-keeping in society to make this movement . . . strong and popular in the masses. And this is to be noted, that now the religious leaders, instead of making impediments in the way of each other and criticizing, . . . try to resolve conflicts on humanity basis. This is really an astonishing triumph. These workshops also helped make it part of their faith that a particular nation or group is not beloved of God, but the entire humanity can become the loved one of God if it serves Him. God is not limited only to one nation but is of the whole universe.” Preaching on these topics occurred even in the Swat valley, which has seen violent clashes between the Taliban and the Pakistani military. There, the participants vowed not to permit extremists “to initiate their vicious activities in the area under the cover of Islam.”
(2) In addition to preaching in their own communities, the Christian and Muslim leaders have begun visiting each other’s mosques and churches together to speak to the congregations about interfaith tolerance and cooperation.
(3) Most of the workshop participants have subsequently initiated their own interfaith programs to promote peaceful coexistence. Some examples include the Peace Commission described above, a partnership between a Muslim leader and a Christian seminary in Karachi, and an iftar (dinner to break the Ramadan fast) hosted for Muslims by the Senior Bishop of Pakistan.
(4) In the village of Gorja, where in July 2009, a mob burned Christian homes and killed at least eight Christians, workshop participants vowed to provide relief to the survivors of the attack and subsequently started programs on interfaith tolerance in the village.
(5) The Lahore Station of Radio Pakistan invited Muslim and Christian leaders to participate in a debate program on “interfaith harmony”, where their message of interfaith cooperation was spread to the state-run broadcast’s worldwide Urdu-speaking audience.
(6) ICRD’s Muslim partner subsequently traveled to the United States to facilitate interfaith seminars. These seminars specifically targeted members of the Pakistani-American community who fund mosques and madressahs in Pakistan and encouraged them to fund interfaith activities.