Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Religion could be a positive force for change

BANNU, Pakistan - In a world full of cynicism and disbelief there are still people of faith who reach out to others and try to understand and accept mutual differences but also build on common religious threads.

My visit to this frontier outpost adjacent to the Pakistani tribal region of Wazirstan was of such nature.

I am part of a six-member American delegation made up of four Christians and two Muslims to have discussions with religious leaders, Muslims and non-Muslims, and to foster religious understanding.

The Washington-based Institute for Global Engagement is a non-governmental organization and a think tank.

It is also a Christian Evangelist organization that does not proselytize but advocates religious freedom around the world.

It realizes that in international relations religion is now part of the equation.

Could disparate people from different religious traditions sit down and talk in global context for the common good and without asserting the superiority of one's faith?

The man behind this question (and premise) is Chris Seiple, the energetic ex-Marine infantry officer and a veteran of Strategic Initiative Group within the Marine Corps.

He is also a member of the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies, London.

Others in the delegation include Mark Amstutz, professor of political science at Chicago's Wheaton College; Jerry Dauderman, an alumnus of Harvard business school and an entrepreneur from Palm Beach, Calif.; Josh White, former vice president of IGE; Sarah Karim, an American-educated young Muslim women from Karachi, and Rebecca Haines, an IGE staffer in charge of initiatives in the Muslim world.

IGE's engagement in the North West Frontier Province started a few years ago, when a coalition of religious parties swept provincial elections and sent shock waves through the power corridors of Washington and Islamabad.

Everyone assumed that there would be a steep rise in religious intolerance and repression of religious minorities in the province.

Instead, in Akram Durrani, the bearded chief minister of the province, they found a man who subscribed to IGE's philosophy.

Mr. Durrani went to Washington last summer as guest of the institute, talked to American policy makers in Washington, and visited Ground Zero in New York.

Later he signed a far-reaching memorandum of understanding with IGE in which the provincial government committed itself to freedom of religion, enhancement of socioeconomic conditions of the minorities, and fostering links between U.S. and Pakistani educational institutions.

The current visit was the continuation of that effort.

During the week-long visit the delegation had two detailed meetings with the chief minister and met with representatives of the Christian community and the representatives of the remote Kailash tribes from the Hindu Kush Mountains.

We did not find any systematic effort to harass or convert minorities. Still, a province-wide Interfaith Advisory Council has been established in the Islamic Studies Department of the University of Peshawar to advise the government on minority issues.

The town of Bannu is barely half an hour drive from North Wazirstan, where a bloody stand-off continues between the Pakistan army and tribal sympathizers of al Qaeda and the Taliban.

It is also here, in Bannu, where Richard Reid the shoe bomber received religious instruction in 1998.

We met representatives of a 2,000-strong Christian community that includes an elected Christian member of the provincial legislature.

It was here in the mid-19th century that an Anglican missionary surgeon by the name of Theodore Pennell established a hospital and a high school.

The exploits of Dr. Pennel became part of the legend of the British presence in these areas and were chronicled in his book titled Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier, published in 1909.

The hospital and the school are thriving, and the government is helping build a new church on the site.

Also at Bannu we met and exchanged views with students and faculty of the University of Science and Technology.

While they were surprised to learn about religious freedom in America, they were critical of U.S. policies toward Muslims. We heard echoes of the same complaint all through our tour.

Religious amity is an ongoing process. Toward that end the Institute for Global Engagement has announced the award of scholarships to minorities, women, and students from the tribal areas. During our travels in the Frontier areas of Pakistan we realized that religion, far from being a negative influence, could be a positive force for change. If only we could convince our leaders and policy makers.

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