Footprints: The bishop from Karachi

SITTING in his office overlooking the famous Wimpole Street in Westminster, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, who in 1994 became the first non-white diocesan bishop at the Church of England and was among the final two candidates to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, remembers with fondness the Karachi of his youth.

The city was home to large communities of Goans, Anglo-Indians, south Indians, and Sindhis. His experience of growing up among Muslims, Hindus, Parsis and Christians equipped him to facilitate interfaith dialogue. “I remember attending Shia commemorations,” he says. “Rather than hostility, there was a desire to learn about various beliefs and practices.”

Bishop Michael was ordained as an Anglican priest at the age of 20 while he was still in Karachi. “At the time, there was a great interest in finding remedies for poverty in Pakistan and Marxism was extremely popular on campuses. Personally, I found Marxism to be characterised by a degree of historical determinism and instead saw joining the church as a means of serving the poor,” he recalls.

During the 1980s, Bishop Michael witnessed Gen Ziaul Haq’s ‘Islamisation’ of Pakistan. He found himself disagreeing with certain measures that were being taken by the government. As a Christian, he says, he could not support laws prescribing punishments that mutilate the human body. The Christian view on punishment takes account of the need for retribution but also makes room for reform and rehabilitation, he explains.

His activism against the Zia government eventually forced him out of the country. Bishop Michael used to be active with the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). In February 1983, WAF and the Women Lawyers’ Association demonstrated outside the Lahore High Court, a few metres from the Lahore Cathedral where Bishop Michael served as priest. When the police started a baton-charge, the cathedral opened its gates for the protesters. “We then shut the gates to protect the demonstrators. That did not sit well with the authorities,” he recalls with a wry smile.

Bishop Michael was also involved in helping brick-kiln workers get educational opportunities. And that did not sit well with the brick-kiln owners. “I am not entirely sure who was responsible but I started getting harassed,” he says.

He decided to move to the UK, where he studied at the University of Cambridge. In 1994, he was appointed the Bishop of Rochester. He has published 12 books on various topics, including comparative literature, comparative philosophy of religion and theology. Since his retirement in 2009, he has been heading the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue. He has also led his church’s dialogue with Al-Azhar University in Egypt and, more recently, with Shia clerics in Iraq.

Interfaith dialogue, he insists, must tackle difficult questions and go beyond socio-political issues to include theological and spiritual questions. In his own work, he has highlighted the relationship between Islamic and Christian mysticism. He explains that Sufis in Egypt and Syria were well acquainted with Christian monasticism and early Sufi literature mentions meetings taking place between Sufis and monks. Sufis refer to the image of monks praying through the night and the light in a monk’s cell is symbolic of illumination in Sufi literature. Jesus Christ is similarly seen by Sufis, especially Maulana Rumi, as the ultimate example of sacrifice, suffering and renunciation.

Asked about the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, Bishop Michael says that the law not only exacerbates the sense of insecurity for many communities, but also contributes to an atmosphere of mistrust and hatred. “Initially, when Christians expressed concerns about the blasphemy law, they were told that the law was made to target a certain other community. I warned a presidential adviser that no matter who the law is intended for, it would affect justice and freedom and no one would be exempt. And this is what happened,” he says.

Bishop Michael contends that he does not think of himself as a minority but as a Pakistani citizen. For him, “our goal should not be minority rights but the creation of a polity where all citizens are equal before the law”.

But social exclusion, he admits, is more difficult to address than legal and official discrimination. He worries about the growing ghetto-isation of communities in Pakistan and says that when people no longer live among neighbours who hold different religious beliefs, it is detrimental to national cohesion.

He laments that the nationalisation of Christian institutions over the last 40 years has left Pakistani Christians socially and economically disadvantaged. “Nationalisation, as was done with Kinnaird College and the Forman Christian College in Lahore, must be reversed,” he says. “Institutions such as Gordon College in Rawalpindi and Murray College in Sialkot remain under government control and this prevents social mobility for young Christian Pakistanis.”

Despite all, Bishop Michael remains optimistic. He says that Christians supported the creation of Pakistan and believed that the new state would guarantee their rights as its founders shared the experiences of being a minority community. “I was born two years after independence and at the time Christians and Muslims worked together to contribute to national life,” he muses. “There were disagreements over religious beliefs but it did not prevent anyone from going to the same schools, hospitals and neighbourhoods. I do not see why this can’t happen again.”

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2016

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