Priya Parkash: Bringing harmony to different religions in Pakistan
Editor’s note: Priya Parkash submitted her following personal story to Global Young Voices. You too can submit yours to us here.
My name is Priya Parkash. I am an 18-year-old high school senior at Nixor College for A Levels from Karachi.
Over the years, I have been involved in initiating projects for social change and one area of community service I have always wanted to work on in my home country is interfaith dialogue, which can be difficult to address in Pakistan. Pakistan is a predominantly Muslim country with only about four percent of the population being religious minorities. Most people usually do not talk about religious issues; yet, unfortunately, there is an ongoing and sad history of Hindu-Muslim riots, inter-sectarian violence and other religiously-related conflicts plaguing our land. Religion is not a popular subject for discussion without tension and there is a strong need for dialogue that focuses on bridging the gap between different faiths and bringing Pakistanis to realize that our faiths have more similarities than differences. We are all part of a global village where there is an interconnectedness and interdependence amongst all living things.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to learn about other religions in my own country; I am a Hindu and yet I attended Catholic school (St. Patrick's Girls' High School) all my life. I have always been exposed to diversity; celebrating Christmas with my Christian friends, the Eid festivals with my Muslim friends, and the Hindu celebrations such as Diwali with my own family. My parents have encouraged me to learn and grow in a multicultural society. Honestly, there have only been a few instances in my life when I felt that I was being discriminated against on the basis of my religion; however, not everyone has been in such a protected environment. I personally know people who have faced severe criticism because of their religions. There have been reports that Hindu girls have been kidnapped and forcibly converted. Intolerance has created a mob mentality, and riots in small towns and villages have become a norm. Because of this situation, since Pakistan's independence in 1947, the Hindu population in Pakistan has declined from 30% to a mere two percent today. There is a strong need of interfaith harmony if Pakistan is to preserve its religious diversity and end the tinderbox of violence.
Almost a year ago, two religious commemorations; the Hindu celebration of Holi and the Christian Easter holiday, were declared public holidays in the province of Sindh where Karachi is located. This decision was met with a good deal of criticism on national television and other forms of media. While there was some support for the decision, I could only see the negative reaction as a result of the widespread religious ignorance prevalent in our community. It convinced me that it was time to be brave and develop an experiential workshop on interfaith harmony called “Better Understanding for a Better World (BUBW) Conference - Pakistan”. I realized that, while religion may be a sensitive issue to address, dialogue can be approached in a subtle manner, and that interfaith harmony is an achievable goal; I applied for a United States Department grant in order to execute this project.
BUBW Pakistan was meant to create the opportunity to interact and engage in dialogue to bridge the vast gulf between Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and other faiths. The target participants were alumni of the Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program (sponsored by the US State Dept.), because although many of them did learn about religious diversity during their exchange year in the U.S., the majority did not have the inter-religious immersion experience. Through a number of conversations, I learned that a large number of my friends and acquaintances had never visited a Hindu temple, a synagogue, or even a church. They had not interacted with people belonging to these faiths, especially in the context of their own country.
The conference started off with the recitation of prayers according to the practice of three different faiths: Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. This was a learning experience for almost all the participants, and one participant said, “Hearing three different prayers changed my perspective. I realized that while we may each have our own idea of God, we are still interconnected and one big universal family.” When everyone joined in to sing the national anthem of Pakistan, it was a poignant reminder that we all had our citizenship and love of country in common.
The conference aimed to promote interfaith harmony, inculcate a sense of appreciation for religious diversity and help the participants develop leadership skills in this age of the ‘global village.’ The conference utilized a training of trainers model, which included a panel discussion, leadership sessions, expert speakers, and visits to various houses of worship. We were honored to have knowledgeable expert speakers, including Dr. Abdul Muhaiman, Mr. Abbas Hussain, Dr. Amana Raquib, Firasat Rizwana Siddiqui, Umme Kulsoom and officers from the U.S. Consulate of Karachi.
The highlight of the conference was visiting the houses of worship. The group went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Karachi, a historic Catholic church that is a peaceful oasis in Karachi for its 1500 worshipers, and Shree Ratneshwar Mahadev Hindu Temple. Almost none of the participants had ever been in the church, and for 97% of the group, it was their first time in a Hindu temple. Father Joshua Rangel, the priest at the church, spoke about Christian religious practices and also spoke about freedom of worship and the blasphemy laws of Pakistan that have, at times, been used to unjustly incriminate individuals.
The religious leader of the temple, the Maharaj, taught the group about Hindu values and methods of practice. Participants listened to traditional stories about Hindu mythology and witnessed Hindu worship rituals. One participant remarked: “Visiting the Mandir [temple] was the most beautiful part of the whole experience. Not only did I get to learn about rituals and festivities, I also cleared age-long misconceptions about worship in Hinduism. Moreover, the Navratri festival decorations were stunning, and the environment was serene.”
The conference came to an end with reflections and sharing feedback. The participants felt that they had been involved in meaningful activities and many said it was an enlightening event that offered them the opportunity to learn, share, and become inspired to take action; to “be the change.”
The participants, who were from various cities in Pakistan, have taken on similar initiatives in their schools and colleges. These BUBW graduates had BUBW Pakistan’s complete support in their projects, from brainstorming ideas to assistance with finding and applying for funding. We hope that projects like BUBW will create a safe world in which all people will feel love and be loved, and where we will all appreciate and embrace our diversity. BUBW Pakistan may only be one step along the way, but together, we are the leaders and we are determined create a more peaceful future for ourselves and for the generations to come.
Continuing my interfaith endeavors this year, I have initiated a social media media campaign called '’The Lantern of Faith’' which aims to bring together people from all around the world to talk about their interfaith experiences, in an effort to inculcate appreciation of religious diversity and a sense of global unity. So far we have received contributions from Nigeria, Ghana, Pakistan, Palestine, Morocco and the U.S. and we hope this can expand further to include people from other countries. While at the moment the campaign runs only across Facebook, I hope to run it across other social media platforms in due time. Anyone wishing to contribute an interfaith experience can leave a message on the page along with an action photo.
A few years ago, it was hard for me to imagine actively participating to address social issues that bother me. However, with time and owing to my parents' and mentors' efforts, I have learned to believe in myself and in my ability to become an agent of change. While, I may be a drop in the face of a huge ocean, but I have learned to appreciate that I have the ability to cause ripples. I would like to leave you with the words of Rumi, 13th-century Persian poet: “All religions, all this singing is one song. The differences are just illusion and vanity. The sun’s light looks a little different on this wall than it does on that wall, and a lot different on this other one, but it’s still one light.”
Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV
Photos credit: Priya Parkash