Pope Francis’s pastoral visit to Iraq as a Pilgrim Penitent and Pilgrim of Peace amid a worldwide pandemic got me thinking. Age and diminishing health had not stopped him from taking on this pilgrimage, which started in the ruins of Ur, the 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian city that was the birthplace of Abraham, the place Abraham once called home. That, to me, was ingenious as it is the root and home of our monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which do not always see eye to eye.
Just as Abraham left Ur and pitched his tent along the way, we Columban sisters pitched our tent in the midst of Muslims in Pakistan thirty-one years ago, making dialogue our way of life. In Pakistan, we breathe Islam day and night, as we hear the Call to Prayer five times each day, wake up to the sirens calling the nation to get up at 3.30 am because it is Ramadan and time to get ready for the fast, and where the presence of God is tangible among many differences.
Our plan to live among Muslims was frowned on because of fear for our security. But keeping the vision of dialogue alive and focused has given us the strength to face the many challenges over the years. Twenty-nine years ago, we branched out to the tribal Christians of Hindu background in the interior of Sindh. This brought another dimension to our dialogue, which began to embrace Hinduism as well as Islam, enriching our mission immensely.
Our first Christmas in Pakistan was memorable, as our Muslim neighbours gave us our first Christmas tree and a Happy Christmas decoration that they stuck up on the wall. It is important to note this was a time of much political tension and turmoil in the area. They protected us in our vulnerable moments and were always with us in both good and bad times. On Christmas Day, family and friends arrived to celebrate with us.
It was a eureka moment of welcome, and the dialogue of life was opened up for us effortlessly. We attended their marriages and deaths as family, and when tragedy hit them, we were the first called, and we supported them. This relationship continues to this day. Their friends became our friends, and this experience showed us how life can be for a tiny minority in a sea of Islam. One dream was to have a shelter for women, as the plight of women was one of our priorities when we were sent on mission to Pakistan. We visited a renowned Muslim lawyer in Karachi seeking advice, and there we met a young Muslim woman doing her internship in a non-government organisation he ran. She was a native of Hyderabad, where we lived. This encounter worked out as a partnership for life to the extent that when some bishops from Ireland came to Pakistan with Trócaire (Irish Catholic aid agency), she was introduced as a Columban sister. She is of one mind and one heart with us in our mission to reach out to the people on the margins.
As foreigners, we could not open a shelter, so she became our hands and feet. She opened the shelter and worked at the grassroots with women, visiting them in their villages, accompanying them to the courts, and of course, sheltering them. It was thanks to her and her contacts that we were able to visit the women’s jail. We had an ongoing twice-weekly presence there for about fifteen years, running income-generating projects with the female prisoners and helping educate their children, who stayed with them in prison. Our Christian children from outside always visited on Children’s Day. They played and danced with the mothers and their children.
One American Dominican priest, a missionary here for many years, was once asked how many people he converted in Pakistan. His answer was “One – myself!” That’s it! Our neighbour comes in with a tray of food, just cooked for our Eid Festival. This has been a pattern all our years here, and we, in turn, do likewise. We chat across the space from our roof to the women and children on their roofs. But this does not mean that as a minority there are no problems among us in this society. Muslims have stood at our gate in dangerous times of war and controversial cartoons to make sure we were not attacked.
As foreigners, we cannot take a prominent role fighting for justice, but we remember Shakeel Patan, a neighbour and an outspoken human rights activist opposed to bonded labour. He was killed in a car accident. When his body arrived at his home, we were there for his bewildered children, who did not understand anything of what had happened.
Our mission mandate to “go to the margins” would not have happened without a vision of dialogue with other religions as being a way of life. God’s kingdom is alive and well in and through all this and, we hope, through our daily intermingling of life. Together we will continue to care for each other as children of the one God, for “It is in him that we all live and move and have our being”.
Columban Sr Rebecca Conlan lives and works in Pakistan.
This article was originally featured in the November/December 2021 edition of The Far East Magazine, the publication of the St Columbans Mission Society. Reproduced with permission.