This is a parable about loving God and our Muslim neighbors. It affirms a biblical faith that leaves to God the question of who is (or is not) saved.
Christians and Muslims are challenging the unjust blasphemy law in Pakistan, which is used to harass individuals and to stir up anger against religious minorities. The village of Shantinagar in the Punjab was burned in February 1997, and a protest march in Karachi was attacked by police who killed one marcher, injured dozens, and arrested hundreds. Christians live in "colonies" (slum ghettoes) in Pakistan, and paramilitary groups operate outside the law.
Any resemblance, however, between the fictional characters of this story and persons in Pakistan is purely coincidental.
Paul Gill, a Roman Catholic priest, is among several thousand Christians who are beaten by Karachi police as they protest violence against Christians accused of blasphemy. The assault on the Christian village of Shantinagar due to allegations of blasphemy vividly illustrates the problem, but nonviolent protest does not seem to offer a solution.
The elders of the Christian ghettos in Karachi meet to decide what to do. The courage and good sense of their leader, Samuel, enable the men to cope with their anger, but it is Paul who suggests a new strategy. As the men pray together, Paul asks that they might have the faith to struggle against their enemies without hatred.
The city of Karachi is dirty, polluted, dangerous and home for Paul. Animals, vehicles, and pedestrians vie for dominance on its crowded streets. Paul works with drug addicts, and Christian elders travel with bodyguards. The sound of gunfire suggests that a nonviolent strategy here may be futile.
Paul seeks a Muslim attorney to file a suit against the blasphemy law. As a Muslim, Iqbal Javed believes that blasphemy is against God's law, but he knows that the Pakistani law making blasphemy a capital crime is poorly written and being misused. Paul realizes that he has more in common with Javed than with many Christians and tells his bodyguards that "Javed believes in justice, because of his faith in God."
Worship is central to the lives of Paul and Martha, a nun who assists him in his ministry in the ghetto. In his sermon Paul clarifies that Christians need to struggle for justice even if this means suffering. As he prays and leads the service, we begin to see how he understands his faith. After the service we meet Philip, a recovering drug addict, and learn more about Martha.
Paul and his bodyguards visit wounded protesters in the hospital before taking a taxi to a meeting with their lawyers in an area of the city where Muslim political factions frequently engage in gun battles. Their taxi is caught in one of these fierce skirmishes.
Hassan, an attorney, explains the blasphemy law and the legal arguments against it. We learn that Muslims and Ahmadis, as well as Christians, suffer under this law. Henry Blake, an American human rights activist, agrees to raise some money to help support their strategy.
Joseph, Paul's bodyguard, believes their Muslim lawyers can be trusted, but asks: "How can we love the Muslims who hate us?" Paul argues that the New Testament commandment is both right and a good strategy. He says that Christians have persecuted Muslims and that both Christians and Muslims believe in God. When Joseph says that Christians are saved and Muslims are not, Paul affirms that salvation comes from God, not from a religion. He explains the New Testament teaching that we are saved through faith by the grace of God and not by good works or the right beliefs.
Paul visits his bishop, who accuses him of trying to be a martyr. When Paul answers humbly that he is only trying to follow the example of Jesus, the bishop says he needed to test Paul to be sure he was not acting out of pride.
Javed tells reporters that members of the Human Rights Commission are filing a petition with the Supreme Court to challenge the constitutionality of the blasphemy law. When a reporter asks Paul if the petition is an attack on Islam, Paul says that only the present statute is being questioned, not the teaching of Islam about blasphemy. Paul also notes that two Muslim attorneys will present the petition to the Pakistani Supreme Court.
The retired leader of the Church of Pakistan, Bishop Rawlings, tells Paul that it is foolish and dangerous to pursue a petition against the blasphemy law. When he fails to persuade Paul to relent, he warns Paul that he will not support this strategy. Bishop Rawlings also tells Paul that he cannot trust Javed, who has dangerous enemies. Paul leaves without a blessing and without even the cup of tea that he would have received as a guest in any poor Pakistani home.
Paul receives legal advice from his new attorney and tea. But Paul reacts negatively to Hassan's plush office and is upset by the attorney's characterization of their human rights struggle as "a game." Hassan admits lawyers talk like that to keep their own emotions in check, and then he analyzes their strategy. When Paul asks why Hassan has become involved in such a dangerous game, the attorney tells the priest how his father killed a young Christian man that his sister wanted to marry. As a boy of ten, Hassan says, he swore on the Qur'an to make right the wrong committed by his father.
As Joseph waits to meet Blake at the airport, he struggles with Paul's interpretation of scripture and the commandment to forgive those who wrong you. He remembers being shamed by the bishop and the beating he finally gave his father for abusing his mother. Paul says that all those who love God and their neighbors will be saved, no matter what their religion may be. What then, Joseph wonders, is the point of being a Christian? When Blake arrives he wants to visit a mosque before going to the hotel, which irks Joseph. As they arrive at the hotel, Joseph is concerned because there doesn't seem to be adequate security.
At the first public discussion, Muslim political leaders and a university professor present Islamic and legal arguments for religious freedom. The meeting is adjourned to allow the Muslims to say their prayers, and then Paul speaks in favor of human rights. We watch the seminar through the eyes of Joseph, who notes that Paul affirms international law but does not mention that it supports the right to conversion. When Blake speaks, he mentions the lawsuit against the blasphemy law and is loudly applauded by the largely Christian audience.
Khalida Ali, a Muslim reporter, tries to get Blake to admit that international law supports Christian proselytizing. Paul intervenes and steers the conversation back to constitutional questions under Pakistani law, but he fears that newspaper reports might emphasize international law instead. Paul and Javed travel to Javed's hotel to meet with Ahmadi representatives, but before they arrive Javed is shot in the arm through the window by a sniper on the street. Paul gets medical aid for Javed and then calls an aide to one of the Muslim speakers at the seminar to suggest that Ms. Ali's editor be advised to remove from her article any mention of Blake's comments.
Paul's conversation with two Ahmadi leaders informs us of the reasons why Muslims persecute Ahmadis, even though the Ahmadis understand themselves as Muslims. Paul expects the Ahmadis to support their strategy but is stunned when they ask him to withdraw the petition seeking to declare the blasphemy law unconstitutional. They say the petition is too dangerous for the Ahmadi community, causing Paul to wonder if Bishop Rawlings is right.
As Joseph and Paul ride the night train from Rawalpindi near Islamabad back to Karachi, Joseph tells Paul that he can't understand how Jews and Muslims can be saved. Paul explains that the New Testament was written by Christians who had different views about who might be saved and how. He tells Joseph that Paul wrote his letters before the gospels were written and that each of the four gospels addresses a different community. The gospels and Paul all agree that faith means loving God and our neighbor, and they testify that faith reaches beyond Jews (who know the scriptures) to Gentiles and Samaritans. When Joseph asks if being a good person is all that's required to be saved, Paul replies that salvation is God's free gift and can't be earned by doing good works or having the right beliefs. Paul doesn't claim to know that God saves Jews and Muslims as well as Christians, but he believes that salvation is entirely up to God
Hassan begins the Karachi seminar with an eloquent statement supporting equal protection under the law for religious minorities in Pakistan. The leaders of Muslim political parties again affirm that the Qur'an and the constitution of Pakistan support religious freedom, but they don't acknowledge the injustices that are widespread in Pakistan. When the meeting is adjourned so the Muslims can pray, the Christians hold their own prayer service in the hotel room before they break for tea. After the session is again convened, Samuel skillfully presents the argument that Muslims and Christians can benefit by encouraging mutual respect and affirming that they share the example of the faith of Abraham. As Paul moves to the podium to speak, a crowd of angry men surge into the room and begin to fight their way toward the stage in order to get to Paul. Joseph directs Paul and the other speakers out a back door and they flee with their bodyguards.
After Paul drops Samuel near his home, he takes the taxi to his own ghetto and begins to walk toward the mission. Two men fire a shot at him and chase him. After dodging and hiding, Paul sneaks into the back of the church. He and Martha hide in a closet behind a bookshelf, as men break into Paul's house and then into the church. After the men have left, Paul and Martha out of fear remain in the closet together through the night. Pressed against Martha, Paul prays for his enemies in the words of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
In the morning Paul and Martha clean up and then lead worship. For the first time the church is filled to overflowing. Paul is strengthened by the people and by reading the Beatitudes from the gospel of Matthew. He preaches how Jesus taught his disciples to pray for those who persecute them and affirms that "it is on the cross that Jesus defeats the power of evil and reveals the saving love of God for all humanity." Paul invites Martha to lead the prayers, and she offers a powerful and inspiring plea for faith. To end the service Paul suggests they sing, "We Shall Overcome," and as they do he realizes that the attack on the church has made their witness stronger.
After Paul meets with Joseph and receives a report on the wounded, he calls Javed and learns of the unsuccessful attack on his house. Paul tries to return the call of Khalida Ali, and then takes a taxi downtown to visit the wounded in the hospital. On the way he stops at a hotel to see Ms. Ali, who tells Paul she is appalled by the attack on the seminar. Ms. Ali makes it clear that she opposes the petition against the blasphemy law but supports free speech and democracy in Pakistan. She tells Paul that her informants have discovered the address where the Security Forces are keeping the men they abducted from the hotel, and Paul leaves her hotel assured that she will help them as best she can.
We learn why Martha became a nun and enjoys the freedom of being celibate. She visits patients in the hospital until she meets Paul, who scolds her for leaving the mission. "Stop treating me like I'm your wife!" she whispers, and he does. When Paul calls Hassan from the hospital, he learns that the lawyer's house was burned down during the night and that his relatives have asked him to drop the lawsuit. But Hassan is angry, when Paul seems to fear that Hassan will actually pull out.
Javed, Hassan and a couple other lawyers from the Human Rights Commission go to the camp of the Security Forces to obtain the release of the men who were taken there. We see their visit through Hassan's eyes. He thinks of it as a game and a business. They pass a bribe to the commander, who is dressed in the green uniform of the Security Forces, before the man agrees to release their battered captives. Hassan now finds this game very distasteful and longs to be able to present a well-crafted legal argument against the blasphemy law before the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
At the request of Bishop Rawlings, Paul and Bishop Gregory, the leader of the Church in Pakistan, come to meet with the retired bishop. At first Rawlings controls his anger, as he tries to persuade Paul to withdraw the petition. But when Rawlings discovers that Bishop Gregory is taking Paul's side, he explodes and accuses Paul of trying to be a martyr and ignoring the danger to the church. After the two younger men have left, Rawlings slumps back in his chair and lets out "a long and bitter sigh."
The elders meet without Paul to decide what to do. Samuel acknowledges the split in the Christian community over their strategy, the disaffection caused by the deaths and injuries and threats by police, and the lagging response in the international press. He suggests that if the coming public seminar is held without violence, they can push for a hearing on the petition. But if the seminar is disrupted, he recommends withdrawing the petition. After the elders debate these issues, Joseph tells them how his experience guarding Paul has changed his view of Muslims and given him a sense of purpose and hope. "Perhaps," he concludes, "God is working out his will through us in ways that we will never understand." Samuel and the other elders are moved by the young man's appeal, and Joseph is invited to conclude their meeting with a prayer.
Khalida Ali visits Paul's mission in Karachi to gather information for a story on him. Joseph meets her car and guides her through the crowds and filth to the mission, where he makes tea for her and explains the ministry with drug addicts. Khalida Ali is struck by the simplicity of the mission and Joseph's quiet confidence and loyalty to Paul. When Martha arrives, Ms. Ali sees how at ease she is "with being a middle-aged woman engaged in family work for the sake of the Church." Martha explains that Paul feels called to struggle for justice and that she has a lot of freedom working with him, but Ms. Ali sees Martha's simple faith with the skeptical eyes of an experienced reporter.
Paul persuades Martha that she should lead the prayers and Joseph that he should do the reading, as they always do now, even though the Bishop will be officiating at the service. In his homily the Bishop admits he has been reluctant to give his blessing to the ministry of Paul among the people, and privately the Bishop tells Paul that God is blessing his work. But the Bishop also reminds Paul that a covenant with God, as the scriptures say, is "a curse as well as a blessing."
Joseph dreams that he is a dying crusader in Jerusalem, who has slaughtered many Muslims and raped a woman, who turns out to be Khalida Ali, before being cut down in a battle by a Muslim warrior that turns out to be Javed. Joseph wants to repent of his sins, and then his spirit leaves his body and floats up through dark clouds to the light above. There he feels embraced by the warm light, he hear the voices of those he has wronged, and he hears other voices singing, "Alleluia, alleluia. You are forgiven. You are forgiven." Finally, he hears Javed's voice chanting prayers in Arabic and feels the peace he is seeking. Then his spirit returns to his body and in pain he gasps, "I repent, I repent, I repent." Awake, and listening to a cock crowing at dawn, Joseph wonders what lies ahead in his life.
Blake lands in Lahore to attend the public seminar the following day and is taken in the evening to a play. Although he doesn't understand Punjabi, he figures out that the comedy is set in a brothel. Blake is amused that such a play is being performed in a country so critical of Western immorality. At night in his 19th century English hotel, Blake muses on the ironies of his travels in South Asia. Then, in the morning, he squeezes in a visit to an ancient Mogul fort before heading to the public seminar.
Before the seminar Khalida Ali interviews Javed in order to do a story on his support for human rights. Javed tells her that he studied law because his father was unjustly arrested and beaten by police. Then he explains how many Westerners see human rights as the natural rights of individuals, whereas Muslims see human rights as the gift of God to the human community. Thus, Muslims believe that the rights of men and women are different, because of the teachings of the Qur'an, rather than equal. On many issues, however, Westerners and Muslims agree on human rights. Javed says he supports religious freedom because the Qur'an says, "There is to be no coercion in religion." When Ms. Ali presses him about the right to change one's religion, Javed argues that this is not merely international law but also the proper understanding of Islam. "Religion must be a free response to the freedom of Allah or it is not religion." But he hopes and prays that all persons will come to see the final truth of Allah's revelation to Muhammad.
We see this seminar through the eyes of Javed. He listens and comments on the presentations by Muslim speakers. He agrees that the ideals of Islam represent the true religion, rather than the historical reality. Muslims often have not lived up to Islam, but that has nothing to do with Islam itself. He also agrees with the idea in Islam that "people of the book" (Jews and Christians) should be protected in an Islamic society, because these earlier revelations paved the way for the revelation to Muhammad. When a speaker suggests a procedural change in the way that blasphemy charges are filed and also how some passages of the Qur'an should be given greater weight than others, Javed is impressed. But when Paul begins to present a human rights position based on Roman Catholic social teaching, Javed becomes uncomfortable because he does not want to hear that Muslims should support human rights because Christian teaching agrees with Islamic teaching. Javed is relieved when Blake steers clear of international human rights law and seconds the Muslim speaker's suggestions about improving procedural safeguards.
Blake rides with Paul on a wild, reckless trip to visit Shantinagar. Even though he is aware of the extensive damage to the village, the sight of the burned-out homes appalls Blake. When a villager who speaks English begs Blake to help them leave Pakistan, he is at a loss for words. There is little hope for these people in Pakistan, he knows, but there's no way they can all leave. Blake can only hope they will win tomorrow, when their petition is heard by the Supreme Court.
At night in his Islamabad hotel, Hassan says his evening prayer. He washes carefully, lays out his prayer rug, and then follows the muezzin's call to prayer by chanting, bowing, and kneeling, as all devout Muslims do five times a day. Afterwards, he reviews his arguments for the Court hearing in the morning.
When they show up for the hearing at 11:00 the next morning, they learn it has been postponed until the afternoon. So, Paul, Blake, Javed and Hassan go out to lunch together, with Blake picking up the tab. Blake offers a toast with tea, in deference to his Muslim colleagues who do not drink alcoholic beverages, and Javed asks Paul to say a prayer for them all. When they return to the court, Hassan presents their case, and the attorney for the state gives the opposing arguments. Then the state's attorney calls on Paul to testify. He leads Paul to say that the blasphemy law is unjust but then argues that because the law represents what Muslim leaders have decided is the will of God, Paul has asserted that God is unjust. When a cry, "Blasphemy!" rings out from the rear of the courtroom, police surround Paul and drag him from the courtroom.
Paul is taken to prison by a man named Mr. Khan. He is stripped and walked naked to his cell. Once inside, he slips on the clothing left for him and examines his room. When he hears the sounds of people being tortured, he panics and prays desperately to be saved. Then he is ashamed that he is praying only for himself, when these other people are suffering. He prays for all those in prison and also for those who have arranged for his arrest. Nonetheless, the cries of those being tortured fill him with fear, so he sings the psalms until he falls into a fitful sleep.
Paul awakes and watches a cockroach struggle to climb into his toilet bucket. When it falls on its back, Paul ponders the plight of the insect, knowing he can "play god" with its life. Finally, he flicks it onto its feet and waits for it to run down the drain. But it hesitates, and then tries the climb once again. Now a mouse enters the cell, runs to capture the cockroach, and then carries it back into its hole. Then Paul is taken from the cell and interrogated by Mr. Khan. When he refuses to cooperate, he is stripped, hung upside down, hit between his legs with a club and left to hang until he confesses. He blacks out from the pain and the blood in his head and when he regains consciousness begs to confess. He receives his clothes, his confession is recorded on tape, and he is led back to his cell.
Khalida Ali dreams that she is trying to reach the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to say a prayer. When she arrives, she can't remember what her prayer is. In the darkness of the night she struggles to retrace her steps home. She sees a light, then the outline of a man kneeling, and the sound of words and music. Suddenly, the Islamic prayer she said as a child leaps into her mind. She awakes, prepares tea for Blake who has come, and they make calls to try to learn where Paul is being held and to get news coverage of his arrest. She tells Blake her dream, and he advises her to pray for Paul. His advice irritates her, yet after he leaves she goes upstairs and takes out the prayer rug of her father. Then she begins to pray.
A Muslim guard, who believes Allah commands compassion, brings Paul water. Then Rawlings enters his cell and offers pain pills and safe passage out of the country. Paul takes the pills but refuses to leave, because he feels he has to stay and fight the false charge of blasphemy. When Rawlings tries to bully him, Paul accuses him of trying to help his rich Western friends and not the Pakistani people. After Rawlings leaves the cell, Paul kneels and prays for all the prisoners. Then he lies down to rest. As he sees the mouse come out of the hole in the corner, he thinks, "There's no victim here now."
Paul dreams that he sees shadowing figures descending and ascending on steps from heaven. Khan and Rawlings are among those coming down the steps, and Javed and Hassan are with those ascending. After Paul awakes, he ponders the dream. Then men in green Security Forces uniforms come and escort him out of his cell to a room where three other uniformed men are wearing black robes. They play a tape with a doctored confession that implicates him as well as Hassan and Javed. Paul is condemned to death, dragged from the room, and driven to the city dump. Khan adds to Paul's misery by telling him that Rawlings helped them set him up and that Philip threw the grenade into his home. At the dump Hassan and Javed are already hooded and in chains. While the Security Forces prepare to hang them, Javed chants his Arabic prayer. Hassan is silent, because his tongue has been cut out. Paul joins with Javed in the first part of his Arabic prayer—"There is no God but God"—and then sings, "Alleluia, alleluia," as Javed chants in Arabic—"and Muhammad is God's prophet."
Joseph and Martha prepare and lead the Sunday worship service at the mission in Karachi. Bishop Rawlings has died but confessed to his part in the arrangements for Paul's death and also to witnessing Paul's strange act of faith before he was hung. Joseph relates the story to the congregation and says that Paul has pointed them toward a new understanding of faith and ministry. "To show that God is one, Paul chanted the Muslim prayer along with his Muslim friend, and then also a Christian prayer." Philip comes forward, confesses his sin, and asks to be forgiven. Khalida Ali enters the church and, as they begin to sing, "We Shall Overcome," she joins in. When the singing is over, and Khalida Ali comes forward to greet Joseph and Martha, she says, "God is one." And Joseph replies, "Alleluia, alleluia, Alleluia!"
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study † Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer