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Catholic, Muslim dialogue must be lived, say missionaries

ICC Note:
Catholic nuns demonstrate the love of Christ by simply seeking to start a conversation with Muslims who are often hostile to Christians in Pakistan.

By Carol Baass Sowa and Michelle Martin
Catholic News Service (12/20/06) – Sister Perlita Ponge, a Missionary Sister of St. Columban from San Antonio, has had plenty of firsthand experience establishing interfaith dialogue.

For the nine years she was based in Pakistan with other sisters from her order, the sisters’ primary mission was to establish an interfaith dialogue in a predominantly Muslim country.

“We did our best to show them that we were not there to proselytize, but to have a dialogue. We believe it is by living side by side with them that they will know that we are all alike,” she told Today’s Catholic, the newspaper of the San Antonio Archdiocese.

When Sister Perlita arrived in Hyderabad, Pakistan, in 1990, her work was primarily to train catechists from Pakistan’s Catholic population, which is less than 1 percent. The sisters wrote to priests in various far-flung parishes, asking them to bring together potential catechist trainees for workshops.

Working in church compounds and living in two community houses, the sisters did not have much opportunity for meaningful interaction with the Muslim community.

The first bond they developed was with their Muslim language teachers. For weeks during the Gulf War, when the sisters did not leave their house because of the volatile situation, the teachers looked after their needs and were prepared to take the sisters into their own homes, if necessary.

The sisters eventually developed closer relationships with their Muslim neighbors when a young boy sought the sisters’ help for his sick mother. They did what they could for the woman, including rushing her to a nearby hospital, but she lived only a few days after they learned of her poor condition.

Immediately after her death there was an outpouring of help in the neighborhood for the boy once the neighbors learned of Sister Perlita’s response and actions.

“I think that is a very good example of dialogue of life,” Sister Perlita said. While helping the boy and his mother, the sisters did not discuss religion, she said, but the incident demonstrated to the Muslim neighbors that the compassion of Christ is the hallmark of Christianity.

“They say that as a missionary you give,” Sister Perlita said. But she ended up receiving much more from the people of Pakistan and learned a lot from the faith of the Muslims, she added.

“Their faith deepened my faith,” she said.

Dominican Father Chrys McVey, who spent 44 years in Pakistan, likewise stressed that Christian-Muslim dialogue takes place in simple, everyday life.

The priest spoke at Chicago’s Dominican University this fall, delivering a presentation titled “Beyond Christ, for Christ’s Sake” as part of a dialogue series on Muslim-Catholic understanding.

Living in Pakistan, Father McVey grew to appreciate the Muslim emphasis on the public nature of religion and the transcendence of God.

At the same time, he saw how many Muslim residents worked against Pakistan’s ultra-Islamic government for the protection of the rights of the Christian minority. “There were Muslim lawyers who would go farther out on a limb for the Christians than the Christians would,” he said.

Key among Muslim supporters were women, who often were household authority figures, he added.

The priest said his experience in Pakistan gave him a greater appreciation of his own faith.

“When I would be home on visits, people would ask me how many I converted,” Father McVey said. “I always said one – me.”