Dominican priest wages peace through dialogue in troubled Pakistan
The odds that a Catholic priest can help bring peace and make interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance flourish in troubled Pakistan would seem long.
Some 35,000 people have been killed in the country since Sept. 11, 2001. In a population of 180 million, 96 percent are Muslim, 2 percent are Hindu and Christians are but 1.8 percent. Extremists – perhaps 10 percent of Pakistanis, while 90 percent are peaceful people – grab the headlines in the seemingly endless wave of religious violence.
But Dominican Father James Channan is an optimistic man, and has been for the 35 years he has waged peace in Pakistan, the last 14 years as regional coordinator for San Francisco-based United Religions Initiative, the world’s largest grassroots interfaith organization.
Father Channan was in San Francisco for speaking engagements this month and said that he continues to be inspired to bring people of different faiths together, in particular accommodating Muslim-Christian dialogue.
“In Pakistan I see great hope,” said Father Channan. “The dialogue is not just coming together, sitting around a table to talk and have a cup of coffee. My work is aimed at having dialogue at every level of life.”
The United Religions Initiative was launched in 2000 by the former head of the Episcopal Church in California, Bishop William Swing, as a kind of United Nations for religions. Officed in the Presidio of San Francisco, it is now a global network of more than 500 grassroots organizations, called Cooperation Circles, dedicated to peace and justice through interfaith and cross-cultural cooperation. It has a presence in 78 countries.
Father Channan manages the URI effort in Pakistan, having organized 44 interfaith groups, as well as directing a new Dominican Peace Center in Lahore with a similar agenda. Each of these groups has an emphasis, while all of them keep front of mind working toward bringing down Pakistan’s staggering illiteracy rate of more than 50 percent, and giving people a lift out of poverty. The poor, he noted, often succumb to the temptation of joining radical extremists.
“People are poor and they lack vocational training,” said Father Channan, a 59-year-old Pakistani. “We work with them. Another group may work for children in schools, promoting harmony in the minds of children. Another may make posters that demonstrate a sense of unity and peace. Another group is working for the betterment of women, promoting education, providing them with vocational training, and helping women who become victims of domestic violence and also who have been sexually abused,” he said.
It is not uncommon, he added, for Christian women to be kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. Those women are helped as well, he said.
The work is accommodated by mutual respect and the rewards are meaningful, but Pakistan is a dangerous place for minorities, he said.
Indeed, the country’s lone Christian cabinet member, Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities who was an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and a Catholic, was assassinated in March, triggering condemnation around the world. His position has not been filled. Meantime, a radical Islamic party this month launched a campaign seeking a ban on the Bible, described as a “pornographic” and “blasphemous book.” In recent years, the homes of 300 Christians have been set afire.
“Nobody in Pakistan is safe,” said Father Channan. “A person goes to the market, whether Muslim or Christian, and she does not know whether she will be coming back home or not. Police officers are not safe. Our army is not safe. Our political leaders are not safe. Our human rights leaders are not safe. Some of them have been killed,” he said.
“I don’t feel safe. However, I am not afraid to do the work which I am doing,” said Father Channan, “to promote harmony, to bring reconciliation, to bring a message of respect and tolerance. That is my mission. That is what I am inspired to do, and it was what Jesus Christ taught me by his example.” He added, “He suffered. He died, and he rose up on the third day, so that is a great model for me and an inspiration.”