Wow! Were we wrong! Or, at least, we were myopic in our estimations of who the Islamic people were and what Islam proclaimed and believed. Even in the early part of the 20th century, we misspelled and mispronounced their names and titles. Some wrote of them as “Mooslims” or Moslems or even Mohammedans. In the 1960s, we learned the phrase Muslim and could finally distinguish between the religion of Islam and the adherent Muslim.
Sadly, what we are just coming to learn is the familial relationship enjoyed by Muslims and Christians around the world and, finally, here. A Muslim friend shared this story.
In Pakistan's northeastern Punjab province, Muslim villagers are raising funds to help their poor Christian neighbors build a church. The initiative was begun shortly before Easter by a group of Muslims from a village in Faisalabad, Pakistan’s textile-manufacturing hub.
"There is a tiny Christian population in the village—only 20 families—who have no place to worship," Fr. Aftab James, the local priest, told Anadolu Agency.
"Only days before Easter, the initiative was taken up by our Muslim brothers," he said.
According to Fr. James, Christians of the village had to use someone’s home -- or some other site -- to perform prayers on holy days.
"Muslim residents of the town, however, offered to build us a chapel as a gift," he said. "We are thankful to our Muslim brothers for this wonderful gesture. It makes us feel proud," the priest said.
The local Christian community is now very excited that they will soon have a church in the village.
"Before we had to rent or borrow a house in which to hold Christmas, Easter and other festivities," Faryad Masih, a Christian laborer, told Anadolu Agency. "But now we will soon have our own chapel," he said.
"At first I didn’t believe it when Muslim community leaders said they would build us a chapel," he recalled. "But to my surprise, construction work began within one month of the initial announcement," a visibly excited Faryad said.
"Our community’s longtime dream is now coming true," he said.
Christians, Pakistan’s largest religious minority, account for roughly 3 percent of the country's total population of some 180 million. Most of them reside in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, where they are mainly involved in the sanitation, nursing and teaching sectors.
Almost 60 percent of Pakistan’s Christian community is Protestant, while the rest are Catholic. The country’s Christians are represented in Pakistan’s government and Senate, and in national and provincial assemblies.
The local community has already raised 150,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly $1,500) towards the total cost of the church’s construction, estimated at some 700,000 rupees ($7,000).
Mian Ejaz, one of the Muslim fundraisers, told the Anadolu Agency that additional funds would eventually be raised to finish the chapel, which would include a medium-size prayer hall and another room.
"We had four mosques in the village but no place of worship for Christians, as most of them are poor and lack the funds to build a church on their own," Ejaz, who also provides funds for the village’s four mosques, said.
Therefore, Ejaz said, Muslim community leaders had decided to give an Easter gift to their Christian counterparts in the form of a chapel.
The day construction work began on the church in March, a massive bombing tore through a public park in provincial capital Lahore killing dozens of people, including a number of Christians celebrating Easter.
"We want to tell the world that Pakistan isn’t a country of extremists—who are only a small minority—but a country of people who believe in religious tolerance and harmony," Ejaz said.
"Moreover, the Christian world is doing a lot for Muslim refugees, so we should pay them [the Christians] back in the same coin," he said, referring to the flocks of Muslim refugees now trying to reach Europe from Turkey.
In the Punjab region, Christians have often borne the brunt of anger and animosity from the Hindu community. The Muslim community has continually rallied to their Christian neighbors’ defense.
A similar effect has been seen in Egypt where Muslims have donated money towards the building of a Coptic church in Al Manufiyya, north of Cairo, signaling another step towards solidarity in a country previously divided along religious lines.
Coptic Orthodox Bishop Benyamin, of the Diocese of Al Manufiyya, began a collection of donations for the church, which will be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. According to Fides news agency, a number of Islamic leaders in the area encouraged local Muslims to contribute to the program, a suggestion that was taken up most enthusiastically by young people and children.
Pleased with the success of the initiative, Bishop Benyamin has urged other communities to follow suit, and said there is a message to learn from the way that Christians and Muslims are working together.
In the Old World, Christians and Muslims have lived side-by-side for centuries. Like any family, they have their own rivalries and squabbles. There is the old saying, “No one picks on my brother but me.” This may be the best expression of the filial devotion experienced between the two faiths and, perhaps, can be a guidepost to future relations between the two.