Pioneer of Interfaith Dialogue in Pakistian fr James Channan, OP

Subtitle: Originally published in the German Forum Weltkirche

For over 30 years, the Pakistani Dominican, Fr James Channan has actively worked for inter-religious dialogue and peace between Christians and Muslims. He has been acknowledged and honoured with various awards both in Pakistan and abroad because of his experiences, his commitment and his perseverance in seeking for dialogue and peace despite frequent disappointments and threats to his life. His entire life as a Dominican has been devoted to this single pastoral activity.

Fr Channan was born on October 15, 1952 in the district of Okara in Pakistan. In 1969, he graduated from St. Vincent School in Mian Channu, a district in the province of Punjab. He spent the next 4 years in a training and preparation center of the Dominicans, (Louis Hall) in Multan. During this time he studied in Williyat Hussain Islamia College Multan and obtained a Bachelor Degree from the Punjab University in Lahore. In September 1973, he entered the novitiate at Bahawalpur Dominican House and a year later, he made his first vows (Simple Profession). He received philosophical and theological training from Christ the King Seminary in Karachi (1974-1980). 

 During this period of study, Fr Channan spent six months for an internship in the house of the Jesuits (Loyola Hall) in Lahore, which introduced him to the Swiss Jesuit P. Bütler, a pioneer of the Christian-Islamic dialogue in Pakistan. During this internship, Fr Channan began his studies at the Institute of Arabic Language.

He was ordained to the priesthood on April 9, 1980 at Faisalabad. He did two years pastoral work at Sahiwal after which he went to Rome and obtained a Licentiate from the Pontifical Institute for Arabic-Islamic Studies (PISAI) in 1985. He went further to study Pastoral Counseling at Boston (1996), World Religions at Harvard and Peace Building at American University in Washington DC (2003). His academic career was crowned recently with the award of an honorary Doctor of Theology by the International Gospel Mission, Norway at the recommendation of the Protestant Theological College of Pakistan. At the presentation of the award which was witnessed by his mother, Fr Channan acknowledged the invaluable role of his parents in his religious and priestly life and ministry.

When Fr Channan returned to Pakistan after completing his studies abroad, he was appointed director of the dialogue center of the Dominicans in Lahore (1985-1995). There he established a dialogue circle of Christians and Muslims which, despite the deterioration of relations between Christians and Muslims in Pakistan, continued to exist as a positive impetus for interfaith understanding among religious groups in the country. He was the director of the Pastoral Institute Multan (2001-2007).

Within his religious community, Fr Channan served as Vice-Provincial of the Pakistani Ibn-e-Mariam Vice-Province. In the National Conference of Major Superiors of Pakistan, he has held important leadership positions over the years. He was the secretary of the Episcopal Commission for Christian-Muslim dialogue of the Pakistani Bishops’ Conference (1995-2002). He was awarded the Pakistani Peace Price in 2012. Internationally, he was a member of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (1985-1995) and consultant to the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (1999-2004). He was cofounder and Regional Coordinator of the “United Religious Initiative” (URI), founded in San Francisco, USA in 2000.

For 30 years, Fr Channan has participated in many international conferences on inter-religious dialogue and contributed in various capacities. As director of the nationally and internationally renowned Pastoral Institute Multan, he has organized numerous seminars on inter-religious dialogue with the participation of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Baha'is, and introduced a number of peace initiatives like the Peace March of 1999 and the planting of “Peace Pole”. Fr Channan has published a number of books and several other articles in magazines. He is currently head of the Dominican Peace Center in Lahore, which was blessed and inaugurated by His Eminence, Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council Interreligious Dialogue in November 2010.

Looking back at his youth, Fr Channan recalls good experiences of Christian-Muslim coexistence in his hometown. Thus, he has till date many non-Christian friends. Half of the faithful at his first Mass at his hometown were Muslims. Once in 2004, he was invited to the Badshahi Mosque, the largest Mosque in Lahour by the Grand Imam. In the 350 years history of the Mosque, that was the first time a Christian has ever prayed and preached in it. Fr Channan’s zeal for dialogue and peace is enkindled by such experiences.

 Often when he is asked about this motivating factor, Fr Channan has always answered that there is no alternative to dialogue and peace. Being only 2% of the population, it is very important for Pakistani Christians to coexist peacefully with the 96% Muslims. Christians are gradually being understood as citizens who sincerely wish to carry the country along with the Muslims. Thus, Christians join Muslims in condemning any form of sacrilege against the Prophet Mohammed, the Holy Quran or the Islamic faith as a whole. The dialogue with Muslims is based on mutual respect and solidarity, equality and the promotion of cooperation and peaceful coexistence. The dialogue strives to reduce existing tensions and misunderstandings.

Despite his optimistic stands, Fr Channan is still realistic on the difficulties. For instance, the operations of radical and extremist groups like the Taliban, the introduction of blasphemy laws and the killing of Shabbaz Bhatti, the Catholic Federal Minister for Minorities for his efforts to have it abolished, the systematic teaching of religious intolerance in schools etc are notable setbacks. Fr Channan condemned the assassination of Bhatti and he has remained vocal in his quest for dialogue, tolerance and peace despite the threats.

George Evers (Mission Scholars)
(21 May 2013)

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