In a country where Christians are in clear minority, often suffering discrimination, and in a context that has seen repeated frictions and violence between people of different religious traditions, the Church of Norway and Church of Pakistan have broken new ecumenical ground during a recent week in Lahore, Pakistan.
Received by the Church of Pakistan’s presiding bishop Samuel Robert Azariah on 15 January, Church of Norway’s presiding bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien became not only the first-ever woman bishop to visit Pakistan, but also preached during Sunday service at the Cathedral Church of the Resurrection in Lahore.
”It has been a great experience to feel the warmth and hospitality we are met with here,” said Byfuglien after the service. ”It is a sign that the worldwide ecumenical fellowship is strong, when a church which itself does not ordain women, in a country with a strong patriarchal structure, invites me to preach,” she said.
”We have been included into the fellowship as Norwegian brothers and sisters in Christ, who stand united with Christians in Pakistan on a common mission,” Byfuglien added, and reflected, “In Norway, we feel a strong connection to Pakistan through the large group of Norwegians that have their roots in this country. This group forms an important part of our Norwegian church, and contributes to our fellowship through their work, as well as to our common religious and cultural life. This is one of the things I have conveyed to those we have met here in Pakistan.”
Diaconal cooperation a key to strong relations
The visit of Bishop Byfuglien followed an invitation from Bishop Azariah, who has long been engaged in dialogue and diaconal cooperation with the Church of Norway, the Norwegian Missionary Society, and Norwegian Church Aid.
Berit Hagen Agøy, general secretary of the Council on Ecumenical and International Relations of the Church of Norway, accompanied Byfuglien during the week, and reflects, “the smiles and the laughter of the disabled children we met at the church’s school here, children who parents would often try to hide away, is an incredibly strong testimony to the Christian values of human dignity. Through diaconal work the church preaches the gospel in a clear way. This is something we have a lot to learn from in the Church of Norway. If we want to support Christians in Pakistan, one of the best things we can do is to support the church’s diaconal institutions.”
Relations between the churches’ diaconal bodies also reach beyond inter-Christian relations, and as late as in 2016 representatives from the Church of Norway and Norwegian Church Aid participated in a conference on interreligious dialogue in Lahore, under the theme of “Pilgrimage of Life towards Reconciliation”.
”Since 2004, we have been actively engaged with Church of Pakistan on interfaith initiatives on social cohesion between different faith communities in Pakistan,” says Arne Sæverås, Norwegian Church Aid advisor for Peace and Reconciliation. ”In many ways this work also reflects the interfaith work Church of Norway is engaged in in Norway,” he adds.
“Norwegian Church Aid makes an impressive contribution,” said Byfuglien, “and engaging in dialogue with its partners is an important part of our visit here in Pakistan.”
Ecumenical relations give hope in difficult times
“In Pakistan, we have seen systematic discrimination of non-Muslim religious minorities,” comments Berit Hagen Agøy, “and we have been met by the attitude that minorities are free to convert to Islam, thereby attaining equal treatment.”
“This approach is of course unacceptable, so it is a good sign that Pakistani authorities have lately spoken up to strengthen the protection of the country’s minorities. But there is still a long way to go before freedom of religion is fully respected in Pakistan,” Agøy says.
“We have engaged in sincere dialogue with the ministers responsible for minorities and human rights, at both state and national level,” adds Bishop Byfuglien. “And although there are many good signs in the authorities putting the situation of minorities on the agenda, we remain deeply concerned about the human rights situation here in Pakistan.”
“Yet, the church we have met has not lost its hope,” Byfuglien concludes. “On the contrary. Meeting with young Christians who educate themselves and dream of the future, meeting women who know their rights and who show the courage to fight for them, makes a deep impression. And we have also met hopeful church leaders who maintain that there is a future for Christians in Pakistan. Christians may be few here, but they do impressive work, with schools and health services, they fill up the churches on Sundays, and when we ask them what we can do to help them, they reply, ‘well, you can start by filling up the churches in Norway.’ ”
Church of Pakistan hosts Muslims, Christians (WCC press release of 23 March 2016)