The cross he has had to bear
He carried a dream from his mother’s womb into the world. His mother, who had a vision of a blindingly radiant preacher amongst a heavenly audience, offered her unborn child’s life in the service of God. He lived his mother’s dream for 46 years – a life time – studying Arabic, the Quran and Sunnah. He was studying at the Islamic Research Center in McGill University, Canada – where he worked on his PhD thesis based on the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – when called back to serve his country. This is not the story of an Islamic scholar. It is the story of Alexander John Malik, the Bishop of Lahore and his mission to unite Pakistan under the flag of compassion and inter-faith harmony. It is the story of 65 years of broken promises to those representing the white strip of the green flag and the lost vision of the Quaid-e-Azam.
Bishop Alexander John Malik is at the eve of his long career, set to retire by the end of September this year. Having served 32 years as the Bishop of Lahore, he wears the mantle of longest serving Bishop in the history of the Anglican Church of the sub-continent.
When I sit with him to discuss his lifelong commitment to the Christian community and Pakistan, it is only natural that we start off with Quaid’s August 11, 1947 speech where he explicitly gave equal rights and freedom to the religious minorities of Pakistan.
“You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or cast or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”
Bishop Malik highlights his struggle and the nation’s journey since that address to the first constituent assembly 65 years ago. “The religious forces that were against the very creation of Pakistan, hijacked it.” Bishop Alexander is sorrowful.
“They took control of events and no particular regime had the power to contain them. When successive martial laws came, dictators were keener to hold on to their seats rather than face issues.”
It was not always this way. Resplendent in his semi-formal church attire, Bishop Malik recollects glowing vignettes from his childhood in Rawalpindi. With his mother’s dream and her promise to God, his path in life was clear. “When I was still a little boy, people used to call me ‘paadri sahab’ (priest).” He also learned lessons in tolerance and co-existence on his mother’s knee. She insisted that he study Islam along with his own faith. He was sent to an all Muslim school in the 1950s.
“I was one Christian among 2,000 Muslim students, and nobody ever threatened me, everyone accepted me.”
He still considers himself a student of Islam.
When Bishop Malik travelled to Calcutta, India to study theology at Bishop’s College, it was there that he was asked to contemplate his life’s purpose in an isolated room. Without human contact for 10 days, he finally found his mother’s dream. “I realised that she had dedicated a child to God without even knowing what kind of child would be born to her.” He says, “Her blind faith, at that moment, became mine.”
It is this blind faith that has helped him guide a beleaguered community through consequent decades of social, political and economic apartheid. It has formed his deep-set convictions that only inter-faith harmony and dialogue is the way forward. It has earned him disapproval from extremist elements on both sides of the religious divide. “Some Christians think I’m trying to dilute the Christian message and some Muslims are suspicious of my message.” He walks a thin line, promoting humanitarianism. “The only way is one of co-existence; respecting each other’s religions and giving each other space. Loving humanity is the only religion there is.”
Since 1949’s Objective Resolution where religious identity was introduced to the Constitution, and the Christian members of the parliament walked out lamenting Jinnah’s original vision, consequent legislation has only served to marginalise minorities further. “People have drifted away from the Quaid’s vision of Pakistan as an open, liberal, nation-state.”
He was vociferous in speaking up for Christians as an integral part of Pakistan’s identity, during the 1980’s regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, which he considers the most challenging era for the country, when radicalism began to take root in the socio-political system and eventually tainted mind-sets.
He was quick to expose the irony of the separate electorate system for religious minorities which was introduced by General Zia on the demand of conservative Islamic lobbies in the country. However, it was conveniently forgotten when Zia conducted a consolidated voting referendum to stay in power; Malik made sure the world saw the contradiction by leading the media to it. “When Zia wanted his own votes, suddenly Muslims and Christians became the same again.” He scoffs. He has registered his protest against this political Catch-22 situation by refusing to vote when the system is in practice, along with thousand of other minorities.
“We all voted together for the creation of Pakistan. We are one nation, our ballot boxes should never be separate.”
Over the following decades, Bishop Malik led his flock, through craggy terrain. Political and social isolation added fuel to repressive manipulation of laws such as Article 295-B and C, which has led to the documented targeting of thousands of Christians since its inception. Several accused were murdered before reaching trial.
In 1998, Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad shot himself on the steps of the court room that was to see another Christian, Ayub Masih accused under the blasphemy law. Bishop Malik is haunted by his friend’s loss of hope.
“He did it out of frustration, that people are not understanding our point of view.”
His path continues without his friend by his side. Advocating a review and amendments in the Blasphemy Law, he only wants it to stop being used as a tool of manipulation by malicious or exploitative elements. “We are not against the law, we are against the misuse of the law at the hands of people,” he adds, as his own hands tremble slightly.
At a very personal price, Bishop Alexander John Malik only sees light where others might despair. His residence has seen angry mobs outside, venting anger at Christians, or Western policies, often unable to differentiate.
“Sometimes we had to leave our homes and go and live elsewhere for a little while.”
His compound has been pelted with stones on a number of occasions. Receiving threats is nothing new.
He continues his battle of ideas. “To my Muslim friends and society I say that we are humans just like anyone else.” His voice cracks with emotion. “To my own people I say, look here, come out of your shells and engage your Muslim neighbours, participate in their lives so they may know you. But they are afraid when they are rejected.” It reminds him of some Christians from Pattoki who told him a story that reflects the road ahead. Having tea at a public tea-house, they were made to pay for the cups along with the tea, since the cups were to be discarded after being used by ‘untouchables’. There is no bitterness in his tone when he relates these stories.
The chronology of the last four years is a reflection of what forces Bishop Malik is up against. In 2009, 100 Christian Houses were burnt and looted in Gojra. In 2010, two Christian brothers, were shot in Faisalabad, after being alleged of blasphemy. Minorities Minister Shabaz Bhatti was assassinated in 2011.
What binds him to the land despite these circumstances, despite the fact that most of his family is settled abroad, is a fierce love that a child carries for a mother. “Pakistan is my country. I was born here. I owe something to this land.”
He has been an ardent defender of Pakistan’s image at various international forums. His beloved country came under fire at a recent conference on the future of Pakistan in London.
“I said that Pakistan may have drifted away from the vision of its founding father, but there are people here who will bring it back.” He says with calm confidence. As he nears retirement, I ask the only question that he finds difficult to answer. Is he leaving with a heavy heart or hope? He hesitates for the first time.
“It is both. I want to leave with hope, to hang onto hope is the only solution.”
The author is a Lahore-based broadcast and print journalist.