Of Swords and Scholars: Working Toward Acceptance

Fr. John Burger
December 2, 2010

In the middle of a prominent intersection in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, is a large modern sculpture known as “the three swords.” The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, spoke of the three “swords” of faith, unity and discipline.

Fr. John Burger

Fr. John Burger serves on the Society’s general council and lives in Hong Kong.

Once, when asked to describe the Columban Fathers in seven distinct ways, Fr. Burger provided a description for every day of the week. Read what he wrote.

Certainly faith, unity and discipline are positive values. However, swords, as we know, are two edged. Can the sword of faith, when wielded by the state, still maintain a safe place for those of minority faiths or no faith? Can unity avoid being uniformity? And can it still make space for diversity? Can discipline be enforced by the state, without becoming mere coercion? Or does not true discipline really come from within a person?

The use and abuse of religion in politics would appear to be the cause of many ills in Pakistan and generates misunderstanding and discrimination against religious minorities, including the country’s Christian minority. It probably will not be resolved until the Pakistani government can make real progress towards reform of the Constitution and legal system, including addressing the delicate question of the presence of religion in politics. What can be done in the meantime?

Fr. Robert McCulloch in front of the midwifery school at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital

For several years, the Commission for Justice and Peace at the Pakistani Conference of Bishops has been leading a campaign against the political use of religion, exemplified by measures such as the blasphemy law and the electoral law, which divided voters according to their religious affiliation.

Archbishop Saldanha, speaking on behalf of his fellow bishops, has said that “growing extremism in the country is one of the key issues in the abuse of religion in politics. Religion, in fact, is the main excuse in the hands of ‘religious parties,’ who have played a key role in leading the country to this threshold.”

Indeed, the Archbishop notes, “a political system influenced by religion discriminates against minorities and their rights,” while the Constitution may not be a “document that serves as guardian of a faith,” as in the foundational Charter of Pakistan. The Constitution, which in Article 2 already proclaims Islam a “religion of state,” was amended in 1985 by “undemocratic forces” with the addition of the so-called “Objectivity Resolution,” an attachment that tilts more strongly in favor of the Islamic religion.

Students of the midwifery school

In this campaign for the independence of politics and religion, the Catholic Church seeks the consent of the other minority religious communities and civil society, as well as the majority Muslim community. The aim is to revive these arguments in the public forum, asking the government for constitutional reform and the abolition of all those laws that lead to religious discrimination among Pakistani citizens. Subtle discrimination has a way of chipping away, often unconsciously, at one’s sense of self worth.

What else is being done for the victims of religious discrimination? In Hyderabad, Fr. Robert McCulloch brought me over to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, home of a school of midwifery. The Columbans and their benefactors and friends as well as the Irish government and Australian Overseas Aid have helped secure various pieces of equipment for the hospital over the years. Mr. Francis, the hospital administrator, Sr. Miriam, head of the school of midwifery, and her fellow Holy Family Sr. Victorine, toured me around and answered my questions about the educational program at the hospital for midwives and the healthcare problems the people face. The population has extremely high rates of hepatitis B and C, as well as diabetes.

The midwifery school provides a way for Catholic young women who have completed high school to get a professional, highly valued skill in a year and a half that will help them and their communities. Sr. Miriam, a Sri Lankan missionary who herself trained in England, is proud not only of the high percentage of her students who pass, but also of how well the graduates do on the government’s licensing test. Is there a similar path out of poverty and discrimination for young Catholic boys who also tend to be from low caste backgrounds?

To answer that question, Fr. McCulloch brought me around to the “School of Excellence” that he has set up with help from Columban benefactors. The regular school day at most schools ends about 1:30 p.m., but the boys who have been  admitted to this program come to a center, the “School of Excellence,” where they are given intensive help in English, Urdu, and mathematics, as well as classes in religion and art. According to the boys and their parents, the result has been nothing short of amazing. Not only have the boys’ grades improved, but they have become a positive presence in their homes. Senior high schools are now anxious to get these students; the hope is that many of them will secure university scholarships and be on their way toward an entirely different life. The school also has basic literacy classes for boys who have dropped out of school and are already working as street sweepers.

Students and staff of the School of Excellence

Perhaps excelling at their studies or in their professional lives is the only way that these bright young people will be able to gain acceptance by the larger society. It is a way of proving themselves. If they cannot be accepted by the mainstream Muslim culture of Pakistan because of discriminatory attitudes, they can still show their worthiness by being the best students, excelling in their studies, becoming professors, scientists or other professionals that are held in high regard by the community. But it still is a bitter pill to swallow that they have to work so much harder to simply be treated equally. Maybe this “model minority” phase is one that they will have to go through, but the basic problems of prejudice and unequal treatment remain.

With the Talibanization of the country, and the eruption of violence that has happened around the country in recent months, do the bishops have a reasonable expectation that their hopes will be achieved? Maybe the answer can come from another quotation from Muhammad Ali Jinnah, “With faith, discipline and selfless devotion to duty, there is nothing worthwhile that you cannot achieve.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Columban Mission.