Religiously, Pakistan is a diverse country. In many respects Christians are second class citizens in this country, with a population that is 95 percent Muslim. They face discrimination, kidnappings and forced conversions to Islam, and anyone who “defiles” the Quran or insults Mohammed can face life imprisonment or the death penalty. Yet the country also has advocates for religious freedom.
Gazi Salahuddin John is a Pakistani Shia Muslim who regularly attends interfaith dialogue meetings in Hyderabad, organized by Fr. Shahzad Khokhar, a Franciscan friar and project partner of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Gazi is deeply committed to promoting interreligious harmony, and that struggle became very real in March 2023, when he single-handedly stopped a mob targeting a Hindu family in his neighbourhood that had been accused of blasphemy. He has since received several awards for his noble act.
During a meeting of the interfaith dialogue group on 16 March 2023, Gazi recounted the incident in detail, in a conversation with ACN. “A Hindu had been unjustly accused of burning the Quran. More and more men gathered in front of the building where the family lived, but they could not enter because the door was closed. They then tried to place a ladder against the building. There was also someone with a gun, but I was able to take that out of his hands.”
Asked about his courage, Gazi says he felt the strength within himself to stand up to them, illustrating the situation with a few verses that he learned during interfaith dialogue meetings. “I once thought religion was something I do, but it is what I am. I once thought interfaith dialogue was something we do, but it is what we are. I once thought diversity was something we were, but it is what we do. We are all one, and brothers.”
Bishop Samson Shukardin OFM, of Hyderabad, who began the interfaith dialogue meetings, confirmed that the situation in the Sindh area, in eastern Pakistan, is better than in other areas and countries where there is tension between religions. The presence of faith leaders – Sikh, Shia, Sunni, Hindu and Christian – in the meetings organised by Fr Shahzad Khokhar is significant, he says.
The Franciscan friar recounts how cakes and gifts were distributed during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, and there are many meetings to get to know each other better. “When we visited the Hindu temple, we were given explanations about the various gods. We gave a speech to the union of traders on how they can contribute to respect, peace and dialogue. And we planted trees, along with students and teachers of various religions, because of climate and water issues in the country.”
Sikh leader Prakash Singh agrees on the importance of dialogue. “Behind the leaders who are here are local people. They see them as examples and models to work together for unity. That is the real gift of this group. According to my religion, this goodness is for all, not for one person or group. God has planted a light in us, in some more, others less, but in all.”
Although there are problems with religious freedom in Pakistan, Bishop Samson is grateful for the advocates, both within the dialogue group and among the police and armed forces in Sindh, who often play a positive role in the region. “Jesus said, ‘Love others as yourself.’ We respect the other. We have shown that we do that not only with words, but also with deeds. I am sure this good work will not be limited, but will lay the foundation for helping each other”, he said to ACN.
ACN supports interfaith harmony programs in different parts of the country. Interfaith dialogue is also one of the issues highlighted in this year’s Religious Freedom Report, published by ACN in June.