It has been my experience to have the strangest encounters when least expecting them. Shortly after my arrival at the parish of Badin, I came to know a man who took his life into his own hands by wanting to become a Christian.
One morning shortly after breakfast, while I was working in my office above the church, I was disturbed by a knock on the door. As I went to open it I expected to see one of our staff members, but instead a stranger was standing there, looking almost as surprised as I must have looked. It is not normal for uninvited people to wander up the stairs of our parish house. The stranger standing before me was about 50. He was evidently a Sindhi and a Muslim, and he looked very agitated. I tried to hide my surprise and gave the usual Islamic greeting Al salaam A’laicum. His answer was not what I expected from a Muslim. Salaam, Father Ji! is how Christians usually greet me. He asked where Father Robert was. Fr. Robert was my co-pastor in the parish at that time. He had been there for a few years before me and was well known in the town. At the sound of our voices, Robert come out of his room down at the end of the veranda. He extended his arms and greeted the man as an old friend. I was more than a little relieved to have passed on the responsibility to Robert.
Some moments later Robert called for the cook to bring tea. He also called me to join him in the reception room. I reluctantly went down stairs to join the party. Robert introduced me to Ishmael Baloch Haji. Haji is a title reserved for those who have undergone the ritual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. It is no small thing to have earned that title, and in Pakistan a Haji is greatly respected.
Robert explained that they had been friends for some months and that Ishmael was now deeply interested in Christianity. We sat quietly for a while until the tea arrived. Nothing serious could be discussed without tea. Ishmael then began to ask me if I believed that Jesus was the Son of God. I looked up at him and then at Robert, trying to guess where this was going. Robert only shrugged his shoulders and nodded to me. I presumed he was not overly concerned. In Pakistan at that time it could be very dangerous to discuss such things with such a distinguished Muslim, in case charges of blasphemy were made.
‘It is what I believe, that Jesus is the Son of God,’ I said. ‘Why do you ask?’ ‘I only wanted to be sure that we are among friends,’ he said. I must have looked puzzled, or I must have come across to him as a little dim, but he went on to explain his story to me in very simple Urdu.
Ishmael had grown up in the town of Badin and had a little education through the state system. His work was as an embroiderer in a cloth shop. His work was enough for him and his wife to live on and he had brought up a couple of sons who had at that time had already married and lived in other towns in the province. He was, he said, a devout Muslim and kept the laws of Islam faithfully. He was an active member of his mosque and spent much of his spare time there learning about Islam and the Holy Qurran. Earlier that year he had won a kind of lottery where the first prize was to be sent to Mecca to do the Haj, pilgrimage. This for him was a wonderful prize, as he was then able to complete all of the five pillars of Islam.
He joined a large group of pilgrims and was sent for training and preparation for the ordeal. At last he arrived at Mecca and performed all the ritual requirements of the Haj within the stipulated time. As he shared with us the experiences of what was obviously a very spiritual time, his face lit up and almost glowed with happiness. But then a change came over his face. His voice became more intense and he spoke more slowly. I noticed the effect and assumed he wanted me to really understand what he was saying.
Most nights, he said, he and the thousands of pilgrims settled down to rest in their tents, or sat around a campfire. A litany of the Prophets would be sung or chanted, starting with Hazrat Adam, peace be upon him, and ending with The Prophet of God, Mohammed, Mohammed Rasul Allah! He said that it was something that he had chanted all his life and had never really listened to before. He had never taken much notice of the words or what they meant as they were in Arabic. For the first time in his life, probably because of where he was, in the desert of Mecca, he really tried to listen to and understand what he was chanting. He said his throat suddenly dried up and he couldn’t say another word. It was as if he had been stung by a scorpion, he said. He had used the same words he had said so often before, but this time they seemed to shout at him with a power he had never known before. The words were, Isu Al salaam Ruh Allah! Ishmael explained slowly that this is the only such phrase in the whole litany. In all the other verses the chant says the name of the prophet and then says peace be upon him. But in this case it is the name ‘Isu’, or ‘Jesus, the Peace and the Spirit of God.’
The implications of this phrase shook him to the core. Ishmael said he could not sleep that night, and the next day passed in a mechanical blur. He could not wait for the chant to start again to listen for that special line, just to be sure he had not imagined it. Suddenly, once again it was there, and he was sure. ‘Jesus the Peace and Spirit of God.’ He said that he turned to the man next to him and asked him if he had heard it correctly. The man said ‘Yes So what?’ So what? Ishmael’s whole life had just been turned inside out. He explained that for him the implication was life and death. It was that if Jesus is the Peace and the Spirit of God then that means he is God! and if that is true then Islam was not teaching the truth and the Christians were right.
He said that he searched out an Imam, a teacher, who could translate the Arabic Qurran into Urdu, as he could not trust his own understanding of Arabic. He spent some time with the Imam going through all the texts relating to Jesus and Mary, until the Imam began to get suspicious about his motives in searching these texts. He was sternly warned not to go into the matter any more, or he could find himself in deep trouble. Six feet deep.
Ishmael kept quiet and completed the Haj and then returned home.
He had hardly been able to contain himself long enough to greet his wife and unpack his few belongings, before he set out to meet Fr. Robert. He and Fr. Robert had met some months earlier and had had some short discussions about the Christian beliefs, but nothing serious, he said. ‘Now,’ he said. ‘I must ask you both to tell me. How do I become a Christian?’
Robert and I looked at each other and then at Ishmael in sheer amazement. ‘Are you serious,’ Robert asked. ‘Do you realize what you are asking? You could be killed.’
‘It’s true,’ he said. ‘But what else can I do? I cannot ignore what I know to be the truth. I believe that Jesus is the son of God and that I must follow him and learn about God through him.’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘You must learn first. Study more about our faith before you decide.’
Ishmael looked as if he had been slapped across the face. ‘What more do I need to know?’ he asked. Robert responded, ‘Have you read the Gospels or the Bible to see what he teaches us? Or what his disciples say about him or about the path that Jesus left us?’ I added to the caution, and said that we have a tradition and many rituals that bind us together as a people of God. ‘If you are to become a Christian you should learn of these too.’ Robert also took up this angle and said that according to our tradition, potential new members of the church must pass a series of exams and tests before Baptism.
We were reluctant to encourage Ishmael too much for very good reasons. It is a crime in Pakistan to proselytise Muslims, a crime that could end up being punished with death. The strict observance of the law must be kept at all times, or the whole Church could be put in serious jeopardy. It was also not unknown for some men to pose as potential converts in order to trap missionaries. At best they would only have them expelled, or put on trial to make an example of them. At worst, I don’t want to imagine.
The policy of the Church was to play it slow and cool, let the person prove himself to be genuine. I say he because it was almost unheard of for a woman to be allowed to even to come out of the home, let alone make a private visit to a church and to speak with the priests.
Fr. Robert, Ishmael and I talked and discussed many more things that morning until finally it was lunchtime. Ishmael joined us and wanted to continue talking for the rest of the day. It was well into the afternoon before we persuaded him to go home to his wife. He finally left us loaded down with a Bible in his native Sindhi, several prayer books, and a catechism that we asked him to study before he made up his mind about joining the Church.
I thought that would be the end of it, but Robert said he would be back. He was, over the next few months Ishmael was a constant sight in the Church compound. He took almost everyone he met there aside to tell his story, or to ask questions about some aspect of the faith. He badgered the catechists to teach him more and more, and eventually even more than they knew. The senior catechists in the parish came to me one morning to say that they could teach him no more and that he must be ready for Baptism and reception into the Church. Robert and I talked long that night about the implications of baptising a Haji. The next morning Fr. Robert took Ishmael to meet the Bishop in Hyderabad.
When they returned, Ishmael was jubilant. The Bishop had given permission, but on condition that he get an affidavit, stating that this was his desire alone, and that there had been no coercion or monetary incentives offered on the part of the Church. Only when this legal document was duly notarised could the sacrament take place.
Early one spring morning during Mass, almost a year after he had first knocked on my door, Ishmael Baloch became Ishmael Yousaf Baloch. Yousaf is the local pronunciation of Joseph. We celebrated with an extended breakfast and the people of the parish congratulated him and welcomed him as a brother Christian. There were more than a few who expressed their concern for his well-being that morning. But he reassured us by saying he would be safe from any retaliation. He said his old friends understood him and believed in his sincerity. Besides, he said, I can in all honesty say that I am a good Muslim! Some of the men stopped with their mouths open in sheer horror. ‘Yes,’ he said aloud, so that all could hear him. ‘A Muslim is one who submits to the will of God. And I have submitted completely to his will. By becoming a disciple of Jesus, I have become a true Muslim. I believe my task in life is to now go and heal the divisions between those who call themselves Muslim and those who truly are so.’
Ishmael left Badin a few days later. He travelled far and wide visiting his relations and making new friends the length and breadth of Pakistan, proclaiming his new faith in Jesus as the way to God Our Father, wherever he went. I met him only one more time before I left Badin for my sabbatical leave. On the eve of Easter he suddenly turned up for the Midnight Mass. After the reunion he asked for a new Christian ID card and a copy of his baptismal and confirmation records. He is still as far as I know a wandering pilgrim, a Holy Haji. and as such being the most courageous and unexpected witness to the faith that I know.
Journey well, Haji Ishmael Yousaf Baloch.