Obituary: Fearless champion of interfaith dialogue

Updated 05 Jul 2020

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Nadeem’s charisma led him to devote his life to one of St Francis’ most cherished goals: inter-religious dialogue.
Nadeem’s charisma led him to devote his life to one of St Francis’ most cherished goals: inter-religious dialogue.

“Make me a channel of your peace,” are perhaps the most famous words of the thirteenth-century sage, saint and mystic Francis of Assisi. In our times, Francis Nadeem, who died recently, lived these words of the great saint.

Born to Barkat Gill in Gujranwala on October 27, 1955, Nadeem was baptised as a young child with the name ‘Francis’, the very name of the saint. From adolescence, he was attracted to the religious life, especially as exhibited through the Capuchin Franciscan order. Inspired by the selfless example of the Belgian missionaries, Nade­­em joined the order as a young 15-year-old in 1970, in the minor seminary.

From the minor seminary in Gulberg, Lahore, where he was taught by my mother, Nadeem went on to study for a regular BA, and then obtained the Bachelor of Sacred Theology (STB) from Rome. However, his thirst for knowledge did not end there and he went to the Philippines to study for an MA in theology. Well-versed in secular as well as religious knowledge, Nadeem was then ordai­ned as part of the second batch of lo­cal Capuchin priests on September 14, 1986.

Immersing himself in the usual priestly activities of parish work, and visits to the poor and needy, Nadeem’s charisma led him to devote his life to one of St Francis’ most cherished goals: inter-religious dialogue. St Francis’ visit to the Sultan in 1209 amid the fifth crusade to sue for peace has become a legend. Going against his own church and leadership, St Francis walked through Saracen lines and met Sultan Al-Kamil to argue for peace and dialogue. Thus, the foundations of the Christian-Muslim dialogue were laid, where the emphasis was not on conversion but walking together in the spirit of God and in harmony with His creation.

Becoming a priest during the tumultuous Zia years, interfaith harmony and dialogue then became the life and breath of Francis Nadeem. He was part of so many interfaith commissions, dialogue series, and the like over his nearly 34 years of priestly life that it would take many paragraphs to simply list them. What distinguished his participation in inter-religious dialogue was his total dedication to the cause, his commitment to always speak the truth, and his daring ability to lead from the front.

In 2005, I wrote a report with him on the attacks on a church and conv­ent in Sangla Hill, where I saw for my­­self how he confronted the local Mus­lim clerics, made them realise that it was a wicked act to attack a church and a convent full of young orphans, and then led the way in establishing peace in the area. Oftentimes his life would be in danger, but he never wavered or pulled back. The large number of Muslim clerics at his funeral and the messages of condolences still pouring in are a testament to the respect and honour he has garnered on all sides. No wonder then that the government of Pakistan conferred on him the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz in 2007 for interreligious dialogue.

Nadeem was a committed Pakistani. He used to often counter the argument that Christians were ‘foreign’ to the land by pointing out that St Thomas visited Taxila and set up the first Christian community in the first century AD — a good six centuries before Islam appeared.

He was a strong advocate of equal rights for all in Pakistan, and was not afraid to confront the powers. I distinctly remember his stirring sermon after the martyrdom of Bishop John Joseph in May 1998, where he pleaded for an end to discriminatory laws, and offered his life as a sacrifice for it — there wasn’t an eye which didn’t have tears at that moment.

Francis Nadeem was also a poet and writer. He was very adamant in showcasing the Christian contribution to Pakistan, especially in the fields of education, health and rural uplift. To supplement his verbal efforts, he wrote several books, with a notable one on the history of Christians in Pakistan, which still remains one of the key works on the subject. At least four volumes of his hymns have also been published. For his literary services the government gave him another Tamgha-i-Imtiaz.

Above all, Nadeem was a ‘brother’ to his now nearly 50 Capuchins in Pakistan. He served in various parishes around Punjab, with the bulk of time spent in three parishes of Lahore: St Mary’s, Gulberg; St Joseph’s, Lahore Cantt; and St Francis’, Kot Lakhpat. He died while serving his fourth term as Custos (Superior) of the order — itself a record — and under his leadership the order grew, not just in numbers but also in its devotion to the life and ideals of St Francis and to the people.

The Very Rev’d Fr Francis Nadeem OFM Cap died of a heart attack on July 3, 2020, on the day the Christian Church in South Asia celebrates the Apostle Thomas. Certainly, Francis Nadeem now joins his ranks.

The writer is a parishioner of St Mary’s, Lahore, where Francis Nadeem served for 18 years

Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2020