Grand Imam and Dominican Unite Against Christian Persecution in Pakistan

With persecution against Christians rife as the result of radicals and militants,  the Grand Imam of Pakistan’s second largest mosque, Badshahi Mosque in Lahore,  Imam Syed Muhammad  Abdul Khabir Azad, and a Dominican priest, Father James Channan OP, are working together to protect the country’s embattled Christian minority. Father Channan is the Director of Peace Center, Lahore, whereas, Imam Abdul Khabir Azad serves as a board member and close collaborator of Peace Center.

In an exclusive joint interview with Aid to the Church in Need,  Imam Abdul Khabir Azad and Father Channan described the conditions in Pakistan and their work together.

Imam Abdul Khabir Azad and Father Channan act swiftly when outbreaks of persecution occur, seeking to bring healing to those affected and minimize retaliatory attacks.

For example, on 15th of  March 2015, two suicide bombers approached churches; St Joseph’s Church of Catholics and Christ Church of the Protestants/ Church of Pakistan,  in Youhanabad, Lahore, which is  one of Asia’s largest Christian colonies.   At the cost of their own lives, security guards intercepted the bombers at the church gates. Still, the detonations killed 22, Christians and Muslims,  and wounded another 70.

En 2014, à la suite de la mise à mort du couple chrétien Masih selon la loi sur le blasphème, une rencontre interreligieuse afin de dénoncer cet événement.
In 2014, following the execution of a Christian couple who were victim to the Pakistani Blasphemy law, a meeting of an inter-religious nature was called in order to denounce the event.

The great majority opposed to terrorists

In close consultation with Father Channan, Imam Abdul Khabir Azad went to the Youhanabad community the next day as a public witness of Muslim solidarity with Christians.

The next week Imam Abdul Khabir Azad organized a march in front of his Badshai Mosque—a vast facility that can accommodate as many as 100,000 worshippers—to demonstrate mainstream Muslim opposition to terrorism and call  for peace and harmony.

Father Channan’s Peace Center also conducts ongoing efforts of reconciliation through publishing a journal, Umang, and holding Christian-Muslim and ecumenical conference and  workshops throughout the year. Imam Abdul Khabir Azad´s focuses on rural Islamic clerics, who are often the instigators of religious violence. He is very much committed to bring a positive change among these clerics so they do not make announcements in the mosques against the Christians.  In 2004  Imam Abdul Khabir Azad organized an interfaith conference inside the Badshahi mosque, the first time Christians had been invited to speak in the mosque in its 350 year history. Fr James Channan was invited to give first ever speech in this mosque on the significance of Christian-Muslim  relations and dialogue.

Since the atrocities of 9/11 in the United States more than 60,000 Pakistanis—most of them Muslims—have been killed by the  terrorists. While slow to recognize the internal threat, the Pakistani government now pursues a vigorous policy against terrorism under the able command of Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif. Imam Abdul Khabir Azad estimated that the armed forces have successfully eliminated 80% of Pakistan´s terrorists.

Laws that are misused

Many problems remain  however, especially in regard to the abuse of Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws, according to both Father Channan and Imam Abdul Khabir Azad. There is a grave to work on this issues both by the Christians and Muslim so that blasphemy laws are not misused and those who misuse these laws are brought to justice and given exemplary punished so that no one dares to use these laws to settle personal scores.

For example, on March 2, 2011 Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic and the first as Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, was assassinated by members of the Taliban for his opposition to this law and its provisions. The former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated, by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, after criticizing the blasphemy provisions as “black law.”[i]

L'un des membres de la famille Masih, consoler par les membres du Peace center de Lahore.
A family member or the murdered Masih couple, consoled by the members of the Peace Centre in Lahore.

Father Channan cited a case that illustrates just how bad anti-Christian feelings and  persecution can be. On November 4, 2014, a Christian couple,  Mrs. Shama Masih wife of Shahzad Masih was accused of desecrating the Quran in the village of Kot Rodha Kishan.  Shamah Masih was a 24 year-old mother of four and pregnant at the time. Shama along with her husband  were seized by an angry mob, tortured, and then burned alive in a brick kiln. It was a crime against humanity, says Fr James Channan.  The Imam also condemned this barbaric act in the strongest words.

It is dangerous to speak out against such abuses, but Imam Khabir Azad does so regularly.  “I have received threats from the work that I am doing, but I am not going to give up. It is the need of the hour, and it is my mission.” The Imam takes inspiration from Jesus as the Prince of Peace, his favorite image of Christ.

We must find as much common ground as we can, Fr. Channan says, in order to build a better society for everyone. This can bring about a “conversion of heart” in terms of having Muslims and people from other faiths recognize Christians as worthy fellow citizens.

Constructing a better society

Father Channan calls evangelization and inter-religious dialogue the “two tracks on which the train of Catholicism runs.” Through evangelization Christ’s followers, in obedience to his command, offer all people the opportunity to be reconciled to God through his death and resurrection and thus be baptized. Whereas, the aim  of inter-religious dialogue is not to convert the other, rather seek those things which are common if different religions and thus work jointly for the better of humanity and promoter peaceful co-existence and respect for the religion of the others.

At the same time, inter-religious dialogue has a role to play as well—one with a civic as much as an eternal character. We must find as much common ground as we can, Fr. Channan says, in order to build a better society for everyone. This can bring about a “conversion of heart” in terms of having Muslims and people from other faiths recognize Christians as worthy fellow citizens.

The importance of inter-religious dialogue in countries like Pakistan can hardly be overstated. For this reason Father Channan was appointed as  Consultor of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (1985 -1995), and also served  as a Consultor  to the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (1999-2004).  Father Channan has been regularly consulted on religious issues by Pakistan’s government and travels internationally lecturing on the importance of peace building through dialogue.

Fr. Channan has seen many Islamic leaders in Pakistan move from a position in which they would not even share a meal with Christians to one of real friendship—the kind of friendship that is so well exemplified by  Imam Abdul Khabir Azad and Father Channan.

[i] Mumtaz Qadri was given death sentence by the Sessions Court and this verdict is upheld by the High Court and Supreme Court of Pakistan. It was shocking for some that for the militants Qardi is seen as a hero who has done right thing by killing Salman Taseer. However, such a claim is rejected by all law enforcing agencies.

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