From left, Oben Abel, 13, Pastor Kent Keydens, Rev. Dr. Majid Abel and S ofia Abel, 10. (Timothy P. Howsare Photo)
Relationships between Muslims and the small Christian population in Pakistan are tenuous at best. A Christian or other minority religion accused of blasphemy against a Muslim, whose faith is practiced by 97 percent of the nation’s population of 200 million, can be sentenced to death.
But sometimes all it takes is a gentle handshake, a warm smile and a blessing to turn an enemy into a friend.
Majid Abel, pastor of a 2,000-member Presbyterian congregation in Lahore, a city in Pakistan, spoke of his participation on interfaith commissions in his home country at Wednesday’s Pecos Valley Rotary Club meeting.
Abel was accompanied by Kent Keydens, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Roswell.
The two pastors are close friends because for the past 12 years, Abel has been serving as pastor-in-residence during the summer at First Presbyterian.
And for the past five of those 12 years, Abel has brought his family with him. His son, Oben, 13, and daughter, Sofia, 10, joined him near the end of the meeting, where they sang with club member Bob Entrop the Leonard Cohen version of “Hallelujah” that has become a popular praise and worship song.
The proud father of two announced to the group that Oben was just accepted as a student at New Mexico Military Institute.
Abel spoke as he gave a slideshow with photos from an interfaith commission meeting he attended on July 3 in Punjab, the largest and most populous province in Pakistan. The photos showed clerics, all men, representing the four faiths in Pakistan — Muslin, Christian, Sikh and Hindi — conversing and shaking hands in a large, elegant conference room.
Abel explained that the Muslims in the room come from several different sects, with some being moderate, while others believe that there is only one faith in Pakistan — Islam — and that it is not properly enforced.
“One Muslim said that Pakistan was made for only Muslims, but I have tried to tell him Pakistan is for everyone born there.”
Abel said while members of the group don’t agree on many issues, at least they can sit down and talk.
“I represent Christian communities on many platforms,” Abel said.
Abel said Pakistan was a secular nation until it was declared a Muslim country in 1971.
“Before that, it was the Democratic Republic of Pakistan,” he said.
Abel said the Muslim-controlled government nationalized the education system, and opportunities provided to Muslims, such as schooling to become a doctor or a lawyer, were denied to Christians and other minorities. While there are fewer restrictions now, Abel said an entire generation of educated Christians in Pakistan was lost when policies of the nationalized schools were strictly enforced for 26 years.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the blasphemy laws came into practice in which a Christian could be arrested if he or she offended a Muslim in words of actions. The most severe punishment is death, Abel said.
Often times before a Christian can appear in court on a blasphemy charge, he or she is taken care of by an angry mob, Abel said.
“With most laws, you are innocent until proven guilty, but with blasphemy laws, you are guilty until proven innocent.”
Abel said Christians are looked down upon as second-class citizens in Pakistan, because their ancestors often came from the lower classes. In many places, Abel said, Muslims will not use eating utensils that also were used by Christians.
But despite the institutionalized discrimination against Christians, Abel said he has on his own visited and introduced himself to the clerics at the five mosques that are near his church, which was established by American missionaries in 1853.
Abel said he has established good relationships with those clerics.
And as much as he can, Abel said he tries to pass along stories of good deeds between Muslims and Christians.
One example he uses is a town in California with a small Muslim community in which the Christians there helped them build a mosque.
Despite his activism, Abel said a direct threat has never been made against him or his family.
Abel said he understands that his actions may not change the world, but as a Christian, even the acts of just one person can make a difference.
“They need to know us so even if they try to kill us they will at least feel bad about it.”
ON THE WEB
To hear Majid Abel’s keynote address at the National Peace Conference in Pakistan on April 9, 2009, enter his name in the search field on YouTube.
The spirit of the former democratic Pakistan lives on through social media. Visit “Democratic Republic of Pakistan: A Secular State” on Facebook.