British Muslim businesses partner Christians to tackle persecution
by- 6th May 2015
THE FIRST Asian ‘Lay Canon’ in the Church of England is organizing local Muslims to send money to Pakistan - to help the Muslim and Christian victims of terrorism.
And they’re only too glad to give, he says. ‘All these atrocities - it gives Islam a bad name’, he says.
A Pakistani Christian businessman in ‘finance’, Yaqub Masih is a new kind of entrepreneur in Dewsbury – city of converted cotton mills in the West Riding of Yorkshire.
Canon Yaqub regularly rubs shoulders with Baroness Warsi and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu – whose idea it was to raise money for a water filtration plant for the beleaguered village of Gojra.
That’s the place that witnessed one of the worst atrocities against Christians in Pakistan in recent years when eight Christians were burnt alive on 1 August 2009.
It’s also where Yaqub comes from.
Now he spends much of his time with local Anglican Bishop Tony Robinson raising money for practical projects to strengthen relations between Muslims and Christians.
Peshawar, scene of a bomb blast at a church in September 2013 – described as ‘Pakistan’s worst attack on Christians’ in which 85 people died as ‘martyrs’ to quote Archbishop Justin Welby, has also benefited from Yaqub’s charm. That time he raised R2.4million – around £12,000.
In December 2014 he raised a further R600,000 or £4,000 to provide a psychologist and social worker for children left traumatised after 141 of their classmates were gunned down on16 December 2014 by Taleban militants at the army-run school there.
‘The IS thing is getting worse’, says Tony Robinson, presently Bishop of Pontefract but moving up a peg to Wakefield later this year.
‘Basically the Americans are not interested in tackling the problem anymore – they’re just playing games. But if no one’s engaging with these Islamic countries the problem’s not going to go away. Terrorism will be with us for a generation, so we need this model.’
‘This model’ which encourages friendship across the faiths through educational visits, interfaith book clubs and practical joint initiatives is funded independently by what’s blandly known as ‘Kirklees Faiths Forum’, and despite sounding mind-numbingly dull, this is the level at which miracles happen.
Founded by Bishop Tony as a joint diocesan initiative between Faisalabad and Wakefield, it has the traction not just to swab the wounds after they occur, but to prevent them from happening at all.
History has given rise to more tensions between local Christians and Muslims in Faisalabad in Pakistan’s Punjab province than anywhere else in Pakistan.
This is due largely to the lowly status of former Hindus of the sweeper caste who became Christians through the work of missionaries and local ‘Bible women’. They offered the poor more in life than their untouchable status as Hindus granted them, doubly marooned by their caste and later by Partition.
But recently things have begun to look up.
As one horror succeeds another, something is being done that helps the sub-continent’s poorest and most oppressed.
For on the back of these almost unparalleled tragedies is being built a new kind of world in England’s former mill towns that is impacting Pakistan itself.
A Muslim-Christian partnership of giving that owes nothing to local authority ‘interfaith’ shenanigans, or government social engineering and everything to individual resolve is stirring philanthropy across the faiths.
Money is raised from dinners and donations. Mr Mohammed Akbar from Sargodha in the Punjab who owns MA Living – a local company which manufactures headboards and beds – has given £500 to Gojra. Another businessman who runs Premier Beds gave £250.
‘They are horrified by these attacks – they’re bound to want to support these people,’ says Canon Yaqub [Watch a video of the meeting here].
After sending over R1million (£6500) to Governor of Punjab Mr Mohammed Sarwar’s office for a water treatment plant to benefit both Muslims and Christians in Gojra, in February 2014 a small delegation including Canon Yaqub and Bishop Tony were granted an audience with President Mamnoon Hussain – covered by all the Pakistan press.
When I ask if it isn’t a teaspoon in an ocean of grief, the good Bishop sighs and we discuss the millions being funnelled to Pakistan by DfID (Department for International Development), which ‘is not ending up in the Christian schools who offer the education.’
Robinson also looks a bit whistful when he contemplates his groaning diary and mentions ‘the day job’.
Somehow he manages the crushing workload of a suffragan with all the confirmations, sermons, pastoral and disciplinary tasks he juggles, while at the same time nurturing one of the most effective interfaith projects I’ve encountered in forty years on this beat.
And he found time for me.
As Chair of Kirklees Interfaith Forum he has,through sheer force of personality, won the confidence of a diverse range of activists of all backgrounds.
The work incorporates educational exchange - thousands of schoolchildren have visited one another’s places of worship, learning the rubrics.
But the real highlight was a visit by three clergy, three imams, three policemen, and three lawyers from Gojra in 2012, arranged by Canon Yaqub and Bishop Tony with a £22,000 grant from the Foreign Office.
Sipping tea with us in the project offices, the beautiful hijabbed Fakhara Rehman, project coordinator, explains:
‘The idea was to get them talking to each other, shadowing their counterparts, and see how a minority living in a majority country get on, and how they need to respect Christians who are a minority over there.
‘It was not just about respect, but working together on issues of common concern. People got on so well, they were overwhelmed.
‘Local Muslim businesses paid for the food. They were all hugging each other. They’d had reservations – those imams who would never have contacted me normally – but now they carry on with the link.’
Gujarati Deobandi imam Hashim Sacha, resplendent in the long white turban of his calling, sits with us. A market trader by day, he spent eight years training as an imam both at Deoband in North India and Dewsbury, and offers personal guidance for seekers in the evening.
He describes one unexpected outcome of the work back in Gojra when a tragedy was averted by the very group that had visited Dewsbury.
‘Somebody had got hold of a Christian girl’s phone and texted a Muslim in Gojra something very rude,’ he tells me.
This could evidently have led to a lynching.
‘Instead, they took her to the bishop’s house with the support of this group while they investigated what had happened, and found it hadn’t been her who had sent this awful text.
‘She could have been jailed for months or worse – that’s what happens. But they all worked together. So it’s about making interventions.’
We all seem immensely relaxed with each other, the bishop occasionally touching the imam’s shoulder, and laughing a lot.
Moving on to the vexed issue of the moment: two kids from Savile Town, an acknowledged mono-cultural Muslim enclave where the Tablighi Jamaat European headquarters is based, setting off for Syria two days before my visit, says Hashim: ‘We all want to do something but the problem now lies with what can we do with the authorities to prevent these things?
‘These two kids were in school. What was the school doing? When the community is being blamed, we’re not saying we’re not to blame . . . but what we’re saying is, Forget the blame job and work together.
‘We need to go past that, sit down and have a chat and see what we can do.’
A young, auburn-bearded Turkish Muslim Dr Ishmael Sezgin of the Dialogue Society,joins us, who talks about the extremism‘round table’ he attended in Brussels recently.
‘It was a study about how Belgium Muslims enlisted for ISIS – 35 of them and three who decided not to go. The major problem it emerged is the internet. The personal contact comes at the end, who tells you what to do. By then it’s too late.
‘When a youngster has a laptop in his room – those children are not religiously literate. If people don’t know what is right and wrong, they fall into a bi-polar narrative, watching certain videos that tell them 9/11 was a conspiracy.
‘Then they graduate to end-time hadiths [sayings of Mohammed about the end of the world]. If you continue a journey, inquiring, then you end up convinced; you cannot ask anybody, there’s no one you can ask. The internet secludes you.’
He is impressed by the Faiths Forum – as indeed should we all. In 2010 it won the prestigious Learning Outside the Classroom Award.
‘It’s a beacon – it’s not appreciated. The work they do, the fact you have a Bishop as the head – the ability to bring very respected scholars together with a Bishop in one charity. It’s amazing. The bishop is too modest!’
‘This is the groundwork’, says the Bishop, laughing off the praise. ‘You start off with tea and samosas– you have to. But then you build on that.
‘The benefit of this may not be today, but it may be in the next generation.’