Muslims are a minority in Norway and a majority in Pakistan. From 12-15 March, these roles changed at a conference hosted by The Church of Pakistan in Lahore, Pakistan.
The conference, themed “Pilgrimage of Life towards Reconciliation,” brought together representatives from all dioceses in Pakistan, as well as several international partners. Presiding Bishop Samuel Robert Azariah, Church of Pakistan, attended as host. He is a member of the World Council of Churches Central Committee.
“In Pakistan, Christians live in a stressful situation as minorities. It is therefore very meaningful to visit the Church of Pakistan to show solidarity and to learn about their situation,” said Rev. Einar Tjelle, deputy secretary general of the Ecumenical and International Council of The Church of Norway.
Last week, Tjelle visited both church and interfaith institutions together with a delegation from Norwegian Church Aid and the Islamic Council of Norway.
“The visit confirms the importance of interreligious cooperation. Also, being part of a joint delegation consisting of Muslims and Christians has been a very useful experience,” said Tjelle.
For religious leaders in Lahore, the encounter meant an interesting exchange of experiences between Norway and Pakistan. Gulam Abbas, leader of the Islamic Council of Norway, shared his experience of more than 30 years of dialogue with the Norwegian Church, and of what it’s like for Muslims to be a minority in Norway. Ingrid Næss-Holm from Norwegian Church Aid challenged the participants to work together on important ethical issues, such as environmental and climate commitments, referring to positive experiences from Norway.
Discrimination on the rise
Approximately 1.5 percent of Pakistan's 200 million inhabitants are Christian. The vast majority are Muslims. Professor Sarah Safdar, former dean of the University of Peshawar, offered important perspectives on how minorities are treated by society.
“When I grew up 30 years ago, there was less discrimination, but in the 1980s with the introduction of the blasphemy law, life has become much harder,” she said.
Safdar shared stories from the many times Christians have been arrested, terrorized and killed because of what is perceived as blasphemy against Islamic teachings. Often, the basis for the arrests are unfounded allegations and rumours, but with dire consequences.
“In 2004 the first inter-religious group started in Pakistan. This has helped create positive change,”, said Safdar, active in the Church of Pakistan.
Role of Norwegian Church Aid
“The Norwegian Church Aid has done an important job here,” said Rev. Tjelle. “Norwegian Church Aid supported the local communities engagement in establishing the World Council of Religions in Pakistan over 10 years ago. Religious leaders from the majority Muslim main branches and religions in general are represented in this council. This is unique for Pakistan,” he noted, and then added, “We contributed with our Norwegian experiences also at an inter-religious climate conference in Islamabad last week. It was very well-attended, and an important start for cooperation in this field. The World Council of Religions and other key stakeholders provide a unique network and platform for better interaction, and for greater environmental and climate awareness in Pakistan.”