T’was the Third Sunday in Advent, and I, a Muslim woman, had been given a place of honor at The Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew in New York City. Every year, the pastor invites me to participate in services and read passages from the Quran from the chapter of Mary. But, this year was different.
The pastor, dedicated to raising awareness about Islam, had selected these verses for me to read—the English translation that is—for the Quran was revealed in Arabic.
In these verses, God reveals to the Prophet Muhammad the miracle of Jesus’s birth; the story of the angel of God appearing before Mary announcing that God will bestow upon her the gift of a son who will be a symbol unto mankind; her disbelief, “How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me?”; the pangs of childbirth; the birth of Jesus beneath a palm tree; her fear of being accused of being unchaste; and baby Jesus speaking from the cradle, bearing witness to her piety, “Behold, I am a servant of God. He has vouchsafed unto me revelation…Hence, peace was upon me on the day when I was born, and on the day of my death, and on the day when I shall be raised to life.” Quran: 19:16-33
Sitting in the pew, listening to the choir sing ‘O come, all ye faithful,’ with red poinsettias adorning the altar, I felt infused with a sense of joy; joy at being included. I felt the spirit of Jesus’ teachings of love for humanity exemplified, when after the lighting of the Third Advent Candle, I, a Muslim woman, walked up to the podium and recited the Quran. I felt the power of Jesus’ teachings of “love thy neighbor” when people in the congregation walked up to me, embraced me, and thanked me for sharing “these beautiful verses.”
A woman asked me, “Did you say that you were reading from the Quran?”
Yes, I said.
“You mean the story of Jesus is in the Quran! How come?”
I explained to her that the Quran instructs us to believe in all the prophets, their message, and in the holy scriptures revealed to them, the Bible, Torah, and Psalms. The only chapter in the Quran dedicated to a woman, is the chapter of Mary. Such is her exalted position; such is the reverence for the mother of Jesus Christ.
“I had no idea,” she said. Many others who spoke to me, said the same thing, ‘I had no idea.’ Each time I receive such feedback, it validates my commitment to interfaith dialogue.
But, the experience was bittersweet. When my husband and I walked into the church that morning, the pastor told us that there had been a suicide bombing of a Methodist church in Quetta, Pakistan, eight people killed, and scores injured. The tragedy of innocent lives lost is heart wrenching, but it hurts more so when the perpetrators are associated with one’s faith and one’s former homeland. ISIS claimed responsibility, committing murder in the name of Islam; my faith.
The killings took place in Pakistan, the land where I was born and raised. This was personal. Someone from my very extended family of sorts had committed terror. I felt embarrassed. In his welcome, the pastor prayed for the victims, and offered his prayers for the safety of our families in Pakistan. I felt ashamed. He was being kind and thoughtful to us, and beckoning his congregation to do the same, holding them to a high standard of humanity. So Christian!
In this season of joy, this Methodist church in America had opened its doors, its arms, and its hearts to make Muslims part of their services and part of their family; and in the land that was once my home, people had attacked a church and killed the faithful — during Christmas services!
My husband and I struggled with conflicting emotions of feeling welcome and honored by the church at a moment when Muslims had just killed their fellow Christians; and feeling overwhelmed by the beauty of the spirit of Christmas.
I am angry at the terrorists for taking innocent lives; and I am angry at the Pakistani authorities for not providing adequate security to the church. I pine for the families who lost their loved ones — Christmas for them, today and always, will be associated with loss. In these moments of tragedy, I can only pray that people from all points of the globe, embrace the message of peace and love that our faiths teach us; and faith leaders, like the pastor, bring out the humanity in us.
Sabeeha Rehman is the author of the memoir ‘Threading My Prayer Rug. One Woman’s Journey From Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim.’ Visit her site here.