Dialogue of Life and Faith - Sr. Marie Ward


The Presentation Sisters came to India in 1847. In 1895 some moved north to Rawalpindi. In 1947 Pakistan was carved out of the Indian Sub-Continent as a homeland for the Muslims. The population of the country is 120 million. 97% of these are Muslims, while the remaining 3% consist of a sprinkling of Hindus, Parsies, Sikhs and about two million Christians. Here in this region the great world religions meet and enrich one another.

When Pakistan became an Independent Nation in 1947, the Presentation Sisters faced the challenge of not only adjusting to a post-colonial situation, but also of defining its vocation in an overtly Muslim State. For some time the Presentations followed the classical missionary approach, however, over the last fifteen years there has been a change in orientation. In the context of Pakistan, where the Christian community is among the poorest and marginalised, this has meant a refocusing of ministry on the needs of the Christian Community. This has meant that the issue of living as a minority in a Muslim State and Christian Muslim relations have become of central importance.

Most Christians who are involved in Christian Muslim relations have tended to discuss doctrinal and theological issues. They have either minimised the differences at the cost of their own theological position, or projected a position on the basis of exaggerated differences. Both positions have minimised the interaction of religion and politics operational both within their own perspective and also in Islam. This is a serious failure with regard to Christianity but in the case of Islam it is a major disaster. The inherent relationship between religion and politics is one of the central theological tenets of Islam. By not taking this aspect of Islam into consideration there has been a serious failure on the part of Christians to contribute to the actual building of relations between the two communities. In the west this failure does not have major consequences because there Muslims do not have a political base and are a "weak minority" and Christians can afford to be magnanimous. But in places like Pakistan it has had serious consequences, leaving an already weak Christian Community totally apoliticised and thus not even aware of its fundamental rights within the nation. Thus until very recently, Christians in Pakistan have played no role in the political debate, even though it affects them directly.

This debate concerns the nature of the Islamic State. A major question is whether the law in Pakistan should continue to be based primarily on Common Law, with some adaptation towards an Islamic notion of social-political justice or whether it should be changed totally into an Islamic legal code - the Shariah. The change to Shariah obviously creates major problems for those outside main line Islamic Orthodoxy, and it also puts a lot of pressure on the non-Muslim citizens. The minorities, however, face this pressure in a special form since seemingly, everything is reduced to an Islamic way and they are de facto not a part of it.

The public debate concentrates on the minutiae of the character of the Shariah and socio-political practices, while dislocating itself internally from the debate on justice, democracy and human rights and at the same time isolating itself from the overall realities of the current history.  Our self-appointed religious leaders emphasise the most humane acts of retributive justice but do not even provide the minimum guarantees of proper distributive justice. All in all we have a society which is beat upon depriving and deceiving people at all levels. However, the main victims of this tyranny are the minorities of Pakistan, perhaps because they are the most vulnerable group. Pakistan as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, follows in its constitution the concern expressed in this declaration for the minorities. However, the passage of the Shariah Act, 1991, puts into question this commitment and has been devastating on the minorities. Three Christians have already been murdered and there has been massive misuse of the "Blasphemy Law" (Article 295-c of the Pakistan Penal Code, passed in 1986 and further extended to death sentence in 1991) against the minorities. The minorities live in fear and are unwilling to utter anything in public or even fight for their legitimate rights, frightened that their Muslim neighbours may implicate them in some way so that 295(c) is utilised against them.

Under these circumstances it is disheartening to note that in most cases the relationship between Christians and Muslims is restricted to individual contacts, with little overall organised attempt at building relations between the two communities where the common concern for justice and human suffering has to focus on both communities. The Christians have mostly maintained in the open a subservient attitude towards the larger Muslim community and a very negative and derogatory attitude vis-à-vis the Muslims on the other hand, largely ignore the Christian community, except for now and then, when there is an unnecessary attack on Christians in the mosques or in a particular sort of polemical literature.

In trying to explain the Muslim attitude towards minorities one senses a presently false but historically real and determining legacy of Muslims as a minority in India before 1947. The perceived "humiliation of Islam" at the hand of the "Christian West" for the past four hundred years also adds to the defensive attitude of the Muslim Community. This is what leads to the oft stated "Islam in danger" mentality whenever there is one conversion to Christianity. This false sense of vulnerability on the part of the overwhelming majority community ought to be the easiest barrier to overcome in the Christian Muslim relations but it will take a long time and effort and the establishment of a genuine participatory and stable political and economic structure in Pakistan.

This will involve a major evolution in the larger Islamic Community within the polity of Pakistan. The Christian community can be creatively involved in this process, but to do so it will need to develop a genuine ecumenical theology which brings the various Christian groups together in the struggle for their rights and the up building of the nation. It has to move beyond an attitude and theology of self-preservation and fear to a theology of the cross with its demands of sacrifice for a larger order of things rather than the preservation of its own ghettos.

In its willingness to struggle with these issues and in its courageous ecumenical openness in this struggle, the Presentation Sisters in Pakistan can act as a beacon for the best of the Church.

   Sr. Marie Ward (A Worker in the Vineyard) for "The Athenry Journal", December 1996

[Sr. Marie a member of The Presentation Order, and a past pupil of Presentation College Athenry, has been teaching in second level schools in Pakistan for the past seventeen years. Her main interest is in providing education for children and older girls who without The Presentation Sisters would never get this opportunity.]

   

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