Dialogue is not always an easy road to travel

Sr Rebecca Conlon SSC describes her mission in Pakistan

My pilgrimage in Inter-Religious Dialogue (IRD) started in 1989 in Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, England, where a group of five Columban Sisters spent time in preparation for the opening of our new mission in Pakistan.

Here, we had the privilege of being guided into opening the treasures and challenges of Islam. This course prepared me for my mission and, even now, helps me to look beyond the frequent experiences where there is much darkness and where hope and life are threatened daily.

As a sign of our commitment to dialogue as a way of life among the Muslims, we decided to live among them and pitch our tent in their midst, much to the consternation of many people who feared for our safety. It seemed a risky decision but here I am, 25 years later, still in Pakistan, healthy and happy in a country which is 98% Muslim.

My own spirituality of inter-religious dialogue is captured beautifully in Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity which was originally entitled The Welcome That Makes a Stranger into a Friend. In this celebrated Russian icon, three angels are seated around a table drinking from the same cup, with an empty space in the foreground, set for the guest or stranger. For me, making a stranger into a friend is what IRD is all about.


In my experience in Pakistan, sometimes I am the one who receives welcome and hospitality; at other times I am the one who provides the space to welcome our Muslim brothers and sisters who, at first, are strangers, but who can be angels bearing God’s message as in the Biblical story behind Rublev’s icon.

Incidents such as the 2005 publication in Denmark of cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed, PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him), had a real domino effect across the Muslim world and especially here in Pakistan, which is the ‘homeland of the Muslims’.


Such incidents spark fear of retaliation by the mob among the Christian communities who are a tiny minority, are termed ‘Western’, and do not feel secure in the country where they were born. Over the years, churches have been burned, villages attacked and houses and businesses burned.

In a recent attack, two suicide bombers targeted a church in Peshawar killing 85 worshippers. Such international and national incidents affect us deeply and, during 2013, we had to stay indoors for a full month as it was too dangerous for us to risk going out.

During this time we had no opportunity to celebrate Eucharist, and we depended on a local person to see to our shopping needs.

I often ask myself whether it is okay for us missionaries to urge our Pakistani Christians to IRD. I was very inspired by Shabaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in the government. He tried to repeal the blasphemy law which hangs like a millstone around the necks of Christians, Hindus and Muslims. He vowed to speak for marginalised Christians and other minorities, saying: “I will die to defend their rights… I want my life, my character and my actions to speak for me and show that I am a follower of Jesus.” His life was taken by a lone gunman in 2011.

The Lord’s work of the Kingdom is woven in and out with such incidents and yet each year we celebrate Christmas night with up to 40 Muslim friends and neighbours. This is a tradition that they started from the very beginning of our time here when, to our surprise, they brought us in our first Christmas tree. We have maintained this open-door welcome since. Also we Columban Sisters here in Pakistan have helped a Muslim couple, both lawyers, to set up an NGO for reaching out to marginalised women. This is a great meeting place for Muslims, Hindus and other Christians who are committed to this particular issue of justice and peace. Such wonderful people were once strangers but became God-sent angels when clouds of darkness surrounded my life.

Dialogue is not always an easy road to travel. It is a pilgrimage of the heart, a road to personal conversion. This means a letting-go of prejudices and being open to new ways of seeing things and people.


*Sr Rebecca Conlon, from Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, has spent the past 25 years in Pakistan. The article was first published in the Far East magazine.