Posted by: Titus Presler | May 8, 2011

Peshawar Muslims & Christians cooperate in AIDS effort despite Bin Laden furor

While demonstrations were underway in Peshawar, Quetta and other places in Pakistan this past Friday in connection with the continuing furor in Pakistan and abroad over the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad early last week, a very different scene was unfolding at the headquarters of the Diocese of Peshawar.

Muslims and Christians gathered to address the problem of HIV infection and AIDS in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province that stretches along Pakistan’s northwest frontier with Afghanistan.  Close to 50 people attended the gathering, which was sponsored jointly by the Jamaat-e-Islami party, the Diocese of Peshawar, and the Inter-Religious Council for Health, an organization that includes Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. 

What was striking about the Urdu-language meeting was the openness with which Christians and Muslims expressed their religious faith, their groundedness in their respective scriptures, their shared commitment to address AIDS with education, and the evident goodwill among all present.  This last was evident especially as the meeting broke up for tea and generous refreshments.

The Rev. Joseph John, presbyter-in-charge at St. John’s Cathedral, opened the gathering with a trinitarian invocation and a prayer anchored in the teaching and name of Jesus and followed up later with an address that expounded Genesis’ account of humanity’s creation in God’s image and the implications of Jesus’s parables of the sheep and the goats and of the Good Samaritan for care and outreach toward people living with HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Sher Muhammad of the Provincial AIDS Control Programme explained briefly the means by which HIV is spread.   In a lengthy and stirring address opened with an invocation of Allah, Dr. M. Iqbal Khalil, president of the Al-Khidmat Foundation, a national outreach of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, declared, “There is no actual vaccine for AIDS, but there is one other kind of vaccine, and that is awareness.  There is no actual medicine for AIDS, but there is another kind of medicine, and that is our behavior.”  On behalf of the diocese as host, Bp. Humphrey Peters closed the meeting with prayer.

All this took place in an environment of increased tension about the USAmerican incursion that resulted in the death of Bin Laden.  Some protests have had religious overtones with, for instance, USAmericans fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan being termed “crusaders” at a Jamaat-e-Islami rally.  Friday’s interfaith meeting emphasizes that the salient cries on all sides in the current post-Osama turmoil are far from being the only story of inter-religious relations in Pakistan.  Moreover, far from cowering in the current storm, the Christian community continues to reach out to form relationships of understanding and action in response to human need in this very challenged part of the world.

While “secularism” in either its Indian or USAmerican expressions is nowhere part of the agenda of life in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it is nevertheless notable that in Pakistan, as in India, people of minority religions do not efface their particular faith identity on occasions of public prayer, but rather express themselves authentically according to their particular theological commitment.  This contrasts with the pressure often felt in USAmerican contexts for public prayer to be as generic as possible, shorn of particularities in favor of a bland universalism.  In this respect, Pakistani practice shares more with practice in India, where secularism means not banishing religion from the public square but allowing all religions an authentic place in the public square.

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This particular meeting was all-male among the speakers and attendees despite the fact that there are many women physicians in Pakistan, including in Peshawar, and obviously many women who would benefit from such a gathering.  Evidently the diocese raised the possibility of women being included, but the other sponsors felt that a separate meeting for women would be more appropriate – clearly reflecting the separation of the sexes that is prominent especially in this region of Pakistan.

Details about HIV/AIDS that emerged were interesting:

• According to Dr. Sher Muhammad of the Provincial AIDS Control Programme, the overall incidence of HIV in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is less than 1%, but among homosexuals and transgender individuals it is 7%, and among intravenous drug users it is 13%.

• Dr. Iqbal Khalil told me that his organization has conducted interviews with 1,700 male and female sex workers in Peshawar, a city of 2.5 million, and that about 400 agreed to be tested for HIV infection, with the results still awaited.

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