Today is the International Day of Peace (IDP) and my friend Rev. Charles Gibbs, of the United Religions Initiative (URI), forwarded a correspondence from Fr. James Channan, the URI's director in Pakistan. Fr. James is a Catholic priest and he works tirelessly for harmony among religions in Pakistan, a country of religious diversity, and currently, a country of frightening violence. Rev. Gibbs included his response to Fr. James's letter and his answers call us to think deeply. Pakistan may seem far away, but on our tiny blue planet, the conflict is just outside our door.
First we have Rev. Charles Gibbs' introduction to the letter from Pakistan describing the situation there today, Sept. 21, 2012 on the International Day of Peace.
Greetings of love and peace.
As I write these brief greetings, it is already afternoon on the International Day of Peace in Australia. Day is dawning in Africa.
It is an hour before midnight on Thursday here in California. All is still, but for an occasional call from the family of red-tailed hawks nesting in the eucalyptus tree on the hillside outside my bedroom window.
I wish I could invite the entire world into the peace I feel at this moment; and I wish that peace could wash over this wounded world like a healing balm.
Then I realize that through the observances of the IDP around the world healing balm is washing over the world.
Maybe it's just a tiny beginning and not enough to quench the flames of violence raging in our time, but great floods begin with a few drops of rain. May the deluge of peace begin.
I wish you all a blessed IDP.
On Fri, Sep 21, 2012 at 4:42 AM, Fr. James Channan wrote:
Greetings of love and peace on this International Day of Peace.
I’ve just spoken with Fr. James Channan, wanting to hear from him personally after reading his moving and disturbing email.
Fr. James painted a picture of Pakistan as a country of people of all faiths deeply offended by an insult to the Prophet Mohammed; a country burning with the flames of anger, hurt and hatred; of people often creating destruction in the communities where they do business, work and live.
But there’s much more. He spoke of a program he had listened to where the speakers were exploring the question of why Pakistan was so violent when other Muslim countries aren’t.
He spoke of a peaceful demonstration on Thursday in Lahore. Among the 50,000 who participated were Christians, including Fr. James, Hindus and Sikhs standing in solidarity with their Muslim neighbors. Certainly there were men at this demonstration, but also women and children; young and old. James remembers seeing a small child, 1-1/2 years old, wearing a headband that said, “I love Mohammed.”
I wish the non-Muslim could somehow awaken to the depth of love that peace-loving Muslims have for their prophet. How for them Mohammed is a daily presence guiding them to be good, righteous, generous people who love their families and seek to be a positive presence in their communities.
Also on Thursday there was a demonstration in Islamabad that turned violent. That night, Fr. James said, all the news coverage was of the violent demonstration. There was no coverage at all of the peaceful demonstration.
Fr. James also told me that, in the current climate, they felt they had to reschedule their annual IDP celebration, which was to include Pakistan’s Minister for National Harmony, as well as prominent religious leaders. Among the honored guests were to be URI’s two new Global Council Trustees from Pakistan, Mr. Zubair Ahmed Farooq and Mr. Nasir Mehood Saleemi. They hope to have their celebration on Sunday. Fr. James asked that the URI community continue to hold URI Pakistan and all of Pakistan in our prayers, and to join them in spirit and prayer on Sunday.
At one point, Fr. James asked me if America can do anything about stopping the sort of hate speech, in this case in the form of a video, that was at least the spark that ignited this fire storm.
My answer, which I will write about in more length in another posting, had these main points:
- In the internet age, no one can stop expressions of hate speech. We can explore appropriate guidelines and/or laws. But there will always be law-breakers and at our time in history one law-breaker has the power to ignite explosions all over the world. We cannot stop people from hate speech, but we can choose how we respond.
- For me, the first step is to do what URI is dedicated to doing – build bridges of understanding that help us understand and appreciate each other at deeply human levels. This lessens the potential for hate speech and violence, and creates communities of solidarity that can predispose communities to non-violent response when they are deeply offended.
- Another step is to urge our governments to have the openness and courage to explore the root causes of the anger and resentment injustice and grinding poverty breed that create the conditions for these violent eruptions. I don’t know that there is a country in the world that couldn’t participate in this effort.
- We’ve certainly had to deal with these dynamics in the U.S. I’ve spent these past ten days reliving the race riots that rocked so many inner cities in the U.S. during the 1960s. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all his colleagues who stood for non-violence were unable to prevent eruptions of violence, and yet their commitment to non-violence ultimately awaken the conscience of a nation and created profound and urgently-needed, still-unfolding change.
- We need deep and reasoned explorations of the nuances of freedom of expression. This is a value held very differently in different parts of the world. And it is a value abused nearly everywhere, and especially on the internet. Even as the overwhelming majority of people speak in respectful ways, it only takes a few abuses to ignite division and often violence. Do laws need to change to make freedom of expression freer in some places and more constrained in the area of hate speech in others? I don’t have an answer, but I believe deeply this is a conversation we urgently need.
- Finally, I believe we need to challenge ourselves to create the videos of peace and mutual respect that can have the same level of impact as this hateful video defaming the Prophet Mohammed, but in a positive manner.
This message has grown much longer than I intended, but I want to offer two things before I close.
As we finished our conversation, Fr. James said, There are big challenges. But I will never give up working for interfaith harmony. Please pray for us.
And, during the turbulent civil rights years in the U.S., a man named Sam Cooke sang a transforming song that included these words:
Oh there been time’s when I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
Oh, yes, it will
On this International Day of Peace, my prayer is – May it be.