Posted by: Titus Presler | February 10, 2013

Peshawar’s Faith Friends meet at Edwardes, excite faculty about inter-religious dialogue

Faith Friends, Peshawar’s one inter-religious group, met for conversation and dinner at the Bungalow at Edwardes College on Saturday, Jan. 19.  It was an inspiring occasion that left participants hopeful for further interchange and motivated the attending College faculty to replicate the Faith Friends experience in the life of Edwardes.

Fourteen regular members of Faith Friends attended, including Sunni and Shia, Christian and Sikh.  While Hindus have been active since the group’s beginning about 10 years ago, there was no Hindu at this particular gathering.  Guests included Qari Saheb the Chief Imam of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters of the Diocese of Peshawar, and Dr. Qibla Ayaz, Dean of Islamic and Arabic Studies at the University of Peshawar and, at the time, Acting Vice Chancellor.  Eleven Edwardes faculty attended for the first time.

My understanding of the significance of the occasion is best communicated through my opening remarks as the host:

Welcome to this gathering of Faith Friends, the first gathering of the group to occur at Edwardes College.  My own involvement with Faith Friends dates to 2004, when my wife Jane Butterfield and I were visiting in Peshawar.  Dr. Qibla Ayaz – then director of the Center for Islamic Studies of the University of Peshawar, where he is currently serving as vice chancellor – hosted one of the first meetings of Faith Friends, when Mano Rumalshah was bishop of Peshawar and Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters, the current bishop, was diocesan secretary.

Then, as now, I was struck by the very name Faith Friends.  The two Fs are a nice touch, but the charm of the name is that it stresses the element of personal friendship in faith.  Last evening at the College Christmas Party Sabir Hussain, head of our Department of Islamiyat, said that the name Faith Friends immediately warms his heart with the expectation of love.  An alternative like “interfaith group,” he said, emphasizes difference and the necessity of negotiation. 

Edwardes College, established in 1900, has always been a church institution, and it has always served a majority Muslim constituency.  It is an institution of the Diocese of Peshawar, yet 92% of our students and about the same proportion of our faculty are Muslim, and about 1% of our students are Hindu or Sikh.  So we are an interfaith community where we live and work together across ethnic, linguistic and religious differences.  The College’s ethos of free inquiry and open discussion has made a vital contribution to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and to Pakistan as a whole.

So I am delighted that Faith Friends are meeting here at Edwardes for the first time, on this occasion to observe the festival of Christmas, the birth of Jesus the Christ.  So on this occasion I have invited Muslim and Christian members of the faculty to be with us and experience the hope and vitality of Faith Friends, and I would like to introduce them.

From the Muslim side we have with us: Dr. Yar Muhammad, 2nd Vice Principal, former head of Islamiyat and noted Pashto scholar; Asst. Prof. Sabir Hussain, current head of Islamiyat; Computer Studies Assoc. Prof. Naveed Ali, Director of Studies; International Relations Asst. Prof. Zahoor Khan; Chemistry Lecturer Rubna Zafar; and Islamiyat Lecturer Sami ud Din.

From the Christian side we have with us: Assoc. Prof. Alwin Edwin, head of the English Department; Urdu Asst. Prof Taj Masih; Chemistry Asst. Prof. Nadia Dass; Psychology Lecturer Julia Pervez; and Social Work Lecturer Atif Bhatti.

Muslim and Christian life thrives at Edwardes.  Our Hindu and Sikh students are few in number.  Sabir Hussain and I have talked about meeting with them to hear from them how they feel about their religious life at Edwardes.  And it might be good if Hindu and Sikh colleagues from Faith Friends could join us in that conversation.

Obviously we live in very troubled timed in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhunkhwa and Pakistan as a whole, and it affects people in many different ways.  Every educational institution is challenged as some students begin to move in radical directions and the topic of religion becomes more and more sensitive.

One initiative I would like to share with you is the Integrity Project that we have launched this year as a way to nurture moral development and responsible citizenship in our students.  Every Edwardes student participates in a weekly discussion that sequentially addresses the following topics: Purposes of Education, Discernment of Talents, Ethical Understanding, Moral Behavior, Gender Respect, Diversity Tolerance, Social Responsibility, and Servant Leadership.

Religiously the topic of Diversity Tolerance is vitally important in the current environment of extremist violence.  It is actually the next topic we are tackling, and those of us responsible for the Integrity Project are right now pondering how best to address it.

One answer I hear over and over again in Peshawar is that people have chosen to address the problem of religious conflict by not talking about it – except among their own group – because, as many people put it, talking about religion only aggravates the problem of religion.  In my own mind I am divided about that.  On one hand I can see how many bitter experiences move people to that point of view.  “Once burned, twice shy,” as the adage has it.  On the other hand, I worry that by not talking about it we may be abdicating our responsibility and abandoning our young people to the arguments of extremists.  My hope is that the answer is to develop particular ways of talking about religion that will not aggravate but will actually ameliorate religious conflict and serve our young people in their educational formation.

If any group can find a way forward in this dilemma, it must be Faith Friends!

Conversation during the evening was extensive and intensive.  Dr. Qibla shared the history of Faith Friends and highlighted some of its fruit through the years: stimulation of similar groups to form elsewhere in Pakistan; initiation of inter-religious studies at the University of Peshawar and at the University of Malakand; and a series of helpful publications.

Participating in the conversation were two visitors from the Episcopal Church USA: Mr. Buck Blanchard, Director of Mission and Outreach for the Diocese of Virginia, one of the largest Episcopal dioceses, and the Rev. Dr. Bill Sachs, a theological educator and scholar, now Director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation at St. Stephen’s Church, Richmond, where his major focus is Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Most encouraging was the excitement our participating faculty had about exploring how to stimulate the spirit of Faith Friends in the College with the support of the larger and more experienced group.


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