Letting actions speak louder than words in Pakistan
A Church of England Bishop and a lay canon from Wakefield Cathedral have just returned from a visit to Pakistan, where they met with Islamic representatives to promote interfaith relations.
The Bishop of Pontefract, the Right Reverend Tony Robinson and Pakistani-born Canon Yaqub Masih travelled to the town of Gojra in Punjab province where a series of violent arson attacks in August 2009 left nine Christians dead, including four women and a child.
In an attempt to restore and encourage peaceful reconciliation between the faith groups, the Foreign Office funded a peace mission in 2012, during which several imams, priests, police officers and lawyers from Gojra came to Wakefield to learn about justice, policing and relationships between Muslims and Christians in the UK.
"The attacks in 2009 received, quite rightly, condemnation from around the world. But we thought that we should do something practical to make a difference," explains Tony.
"We did some intensive work with them – meeting with police here and going to the courts - so they could see how Muslims, as a minority community in the UK, are treated with respect, are free to practise their religion and aren't subjected to misuse of the law.
"We also asked them what we could do practically to help them, and they said they needed clean drinking water – people are dying as a result of poisoned water in Pakistan. So we've been raising funds with both Christians and Muslims here, and then tagged onto a project that the Government of Punjab is running already to serve both communities in Gojra."
Two years later, Bishop Tony and Canon Yaqub were able to visit their counterparts in Pakistan in a landmark trip to fulfil this pledge. The two men, together with the Governor of the Punjab, laid the foundation stones for the clean water project earlier this month.
"This is a good news story and one we need to keep telling in all the places where there is tension between different groups, different faiths and different cultures," Bishop Tony said.
"It is about building bridges and finding common ground to move forward together and be able to walk alongside each other.
"Words are important, but actions speak louder than words. We need to be working together more, and build trusting relationships between both Christians and Muslims in the UK and Pakistan."
During the trip, the bishop also met with the President of Pakistan in Islamabad, where a commitment was made to strength protections for minorities. Concern for minority faith groups in the Asian nation is growing, as the Blasphemy Laws are frequently misused by extremists and false charges are often brought against Christians in order to settle personal scores or to seize property or businesses.
The 2009 Gojra attack came about after false accusations of desecrating the Koran were levelled at a group of Christians in the town.
President Mamnoon Hussain reaffirmed his commitment to protect and uphold the rights of minority communities in Pakistan, however, and said he is keen to promote interfaith harmony throughout the country, noting that "all religions stress tolerance and co-existence of people of all faiths".
In a meeting with a UK delegation led by Bishop Tony, the President praised the integral role of minorities in the life of Pakistan, and the bishop thanked him for his role in looking after the welfare of Christians and other minorities.
Speaking of the meeting, Tony says there is a real commitment to transforming inter-faith attitudes in Pakistan, but there is a long way to go before true equality is established.
"I really think the commitment is there to allow minorities to have a rightful place in society," he says.
"But education is key in Pakistan. Lots of people are illiterate, and don't go to school, so the government say one thing, but it's different on the ground. It will take a long time to change the real attitudes at the grassroots in the towns and villages. But it starts with the government saying something, doing something and making sure that the police use laws appropriately."
The bishop asserts that headway has already been made, however: "Before the attack in 2009, Christians and Muslims hardly did anything together in Gojra. Since then, there have been meetings between members of the two communities, and relationships have definitely got better," he says.
"There was an accusation of blasphemy against a Christian girl around twelve months ago, but rather than taking her straight to the police station, she was taken to the bishop's house. There, they were able to ascertain she hadn't committed the crime, so she was released.
"This really is having an impact on the people of Gojra."