By Father Patrick Delahanty, Special to the Record
Dominican Father James Channan, director of the Dominican Peace Center in Lahore, Pakistan, brings members of different faiths together for dialogue.
Even before his ordination in 1980, he saw the need to focus on interfaith dialogue in a nation where Christians number only two percent of the population, he said during a visit to Louisville last week.
Father Channan was the keynote speaker at the fifth annual Interfaith Iftar Dinner on July 9 at Second Presbyterian Church and spent the day with those interested in interfaith understanding. Iftar is an Arabic word meaning “breaking the fast.” During Ramadan, which ends July 17, Muslims fast from sun-up to sundown.
During his visit, Father Channan explained that as minorities, Christians, as well as Hindus and other believers, in Pakistan are frequently targets of discrimination and persecution. Most Muslims, he said during an interview, are loving and God-fearing, but not all.
Being non-Muslim in Pakistan is sometimes perilous, he said, because of the country’s laws against blasphemy.
“We are suffering because of the misuse of the blasphemy law in Pakistan,” Father Channan said. “When one Christian is accused, the entire community suffers.”
To counter this situation, Father Channan has worked for many years to develop relationships with prominent imams in Lahore, he said, such as Maulana Abdul Khabir Azad, the grand imam of the world’s fifth largest mosque, Bad-shahi Masjid, with more than 100,000 worshippers.
“We are like brothers,” said Father Channan.
“There was a time when this imam did not want to shake hands with Christians. Before becoming imam of this mosque he did not like to shake hands with Christians or have tea with them. Now, we can eat from the same plate.”
Because of this relationship, he said, these two religious leaders worked together after a March 2013 attack on a Christian neighborhood in the heart of Lahore.
According to the New York Times, two friends — one Muslim, the other Christian — had an argument. To settle the score, the Muslim accused the Christian of blaspheming the prophet Muhammad. As a result, “several thousand people attacked the Joseph Colony, a Christian neighborhood of about 200 homes,” the New York Times story said.
After the attack, Father Channan called his friend, Imam Azad and together they visited Joseph Colony to console the residents and seek ways to help them.
According to Father Channan, Imam Azad called upon the government to rebuild the destroyed homes of families in this neighborhood and is actively seeking changes in the law on blasphemy to prevent its use as a means of settling a score.
Another incident of persecuted Christians led Father Channan to Louisville for the Interfaith Iftar Dinner.
According to Catholic News Service, a mob estimated at more than 1,000 people tortured and burned alive Shahzad Masih, 28, and his pregnant wife, Shama Bibi, 24, parents of three young children, Nov. 4 at the brick kiln where they worked in Punjab province. Police said the size of the crowd prevented them from protecting the couple.
Louisville’s Muhammad Babar, a founder of the Pakistani American Alliance for Compassion and Education, one of the dinner’s hosts, said he heard about the killings last fall and wanted to help the three surviving children. He contacted a friend in Pakistan who told him about Father Channan’s work and that he was already assisting the children.
The two men connected and Babar provided some financial assistance to help renovate and furnish the home where the children live with their grandparents. The next step, Babar said, is to make sure the children receive a good education. He is working with Father Channan and others to make this happen.
Impressed by Father. Channan’s work, Babar invited him to give the keynote address at this year’s dinner.
As he began his remarks, Father Channan told his audience of more than 600 Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and others that he was moved by his visit to Louisville, saying he was filled with “immense pleasure” at seeing the “pleasant face of humanity” in his listeners.
“The rest of the world can learn from this modern city,” he said. “How nice it would be that someday there is an alliance between Lahore and Louisville as sister cities.”
This remark generated great applause.
Father Channan told the crowd that he plans to share the story of the interfaith event in Pakistan. “It is important to promote Christian-Muslim dialogue,” he said, “because Islam and Christianity are the two largest religions in the world. If Muslims and Christians are united, there is a great possibility there will be peace on earth, there will be peace in the world.”
Father Channan’s experience in interfaith dialogue is extensive.
Prior to becoming director of the Dominican Peace Center, he served under St. John Paul II as consultor for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue for 10 years. Subsequently he was a consultor to the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims.
While in the United States he also planned to visit New York for the launch of his new book, “Path of Love: A Call for Interfaith Harmony.” He will also receive the “Ambassador of Global Peace Award” from nine organizations.