The Birth of a Messianic Jewish Community in Pakistan

12/19/2016 01:08 am ET

The global image of Pakistan today is unfortunately marred by negativity, not to mention media portrayals that wrongly characterize the country as a lawless breeding ground for Islamic extremism. Many in the West know only of attacks committed against religious minorities, giving the sense that unless one is a fundamentalist Muslim, one has no place in modern Pakistan. But the real story of Pakistan is not this simplistic. Pakistan is a richly diverse country with many religious and ethnic communities living in the country and there are many fascinating stories here.

Just this past week, I had the privilege of eating a delicious traditional Pakistani dinner with one of the top leaders of the Pakistani Jewish community – a community whose existence I was unaware of until a chance encounter at the 9th Annual Interfaith Common Word Conference in Islamabad where I was the only female speaker on a platform of diverse faith leaders and senior politicians. It was here where I met and later received a dinner invitation from Rabbi Aftab Anwar of Rawalpindi at his home, a man born Christian but who converted to Messianic Judaism because of his contacts and connections he made through Facebook. His story, in a country whose Jewish community, one would think, is virtually nonexistent, and where Christians, one may assume, almost exclusively convert to Islam, is extraordinary and is a testament to the power of dialogue, pluralism, and connectivity in the 21st Century. Considering the importance of my being introduced to this community as an anthropologist and field researcher I believe further research is required.

When I first met Rabbi Aftab, I learned he was one of nearly five thousand Jewish believers in Pakistan. A few thousand Jews in an estimated two hundred million is a drop in the ocean. And as a sign as to how small the community is, Rabbi Aftab told me he called himself a ‘bishop’ because he said people here in Pakistan understand the concept better. But through this community we get to know not only about their own history but also the larger society in which they live, we see how different cultures can adjust and accommodate to each other in this case Islamic and Jewish in modern day Pakistan, South Asia.

By accepting this dinner invitation, I had no idea what to expect, but was up for the adventure. Although I was going out in the evening for dinner with my seven-year-old daughter and a female helper, I was aware that this was a Pakistani community, which by nature is segregated and, therefore, I was taking an extra bold step out of my own cultural context. As Muslims and a Christian, we were going out to visit a Rabbi in the oldest streets of Pakistan: through the semi-lit alleys and meandering roads of 1000-year-old Rawalpindi (often shortened to Pindi, which simply means ‘city’) we made our way through to the Rabbi’s small terraced house guided midway by the Rabbi himself on his scooter. He wore white shalwar kameez (local Pakistani dress) and solid plastic chappals (flip flops) like all religious men do in Pakistan for purposes of ablution and easy access, for the feet, to water. On his head, instead of a helmet he had a kippa or a ‘Muslim topi’. In his appearance, he looked no different to a local Muslim imam (or priest).

The Rabbi lived in a simple impoverished home. Inside his modest garage was a synagogue with posters of Rosh Hashanah and Hebrew prayers. There was a poster saying “My Eloha” and another picture of a menorah. He had a collection of books including the sacred Hebrew Bible inter stacked alongside his two shelves with many other sacred books – some he had photocopied from American friends and visitors because he himself could not buy them or find access to them. He showed me the Hebrew Bible in Urdu (Pakistan’s national language) with a few Hebrew alphabets such as Alif in his Urdu Bible, which he touched with great reverence.

Rabbi Aftab’s wife, Shaheen, had made a fantastic desi (local Pakistani) dinner even though there was no gas to cook the meal easily with – she had made Pakistani chicken karahi, karela gosht (meat and gourd vegetable), raita (spiced yogurt), sabzi (spiced mixed vegetables) and salad served with Coke and Mountain Dew. To ensure the food was properly cooked, for lack of gas (an inconvenience that many ordinary Pakistanis suffer), Sister Shaheen had cooked the food a day before and put it in the fridge. This was a great effort on her part and a gesture of local open-armed hospitality. All of the food was halal and the Rabbi and his wife had bought the chicken and meat from the halal meat shop – they said, “like Muslims, we eat Halal (Kosher) and do not eat pork”. In our introductions of each other, I told the Rabbi that my great grandfather was the Wali (the King) of Swat who had been chosen by the people of Swat due to his saintly Muslim decent, but having grown up in that context I was so honoured and so humbled to be in this small but, to me, beautiful house of worship which was no less in importance than a palace. As a global citizen, a believer in God, and a Muslim scholar, reaching out in interfaith dialogue to other communities was also no less than sunnat (the way of Rehmat al Alameen – Mercy unto all of humankind: the Prophet who was known for his compassion and mercy and always reached out to other communities). Today’s interfaith dialogue that I was involved in had encouraged me to listen, observe and learn about the different colors and communities of humanity with empathy.

Throughout the evening, I had the privilege of learning more about Rabbi Aftab’s fascinating story. Due to the Internet, this Bahawalpur born Christian Pakistani, who came to Pindi to seek a better life as a public Pakistan government servant, discovered Messianic Judaism and, given his fervent opposition to the Trinity, discovered it to be a faith close to his own beliefs. He spent a great deal of time online reading about and meeting ‘Torah Observant’ Messianic Jews. He was able to get in touch with Pakistan’s National General Board, an organization of 44 members, which ordains Pakistani Rabbis and makes major decisions for the Jewish community, and which is largely connected online. Through these channels and following some deep reflection, Rabbi Aftab converted, or underwent “restoration”, as he explained the process was a restoration of belief to the original Nazarene faith of Israel.

As we talked, Rabbi Aftab’s followers, whom he had himself ‘restored’, came into the home synagogue one by one. He had managed to ‘restore’ 100 other people to Messianic Judaism – mostly Christians – and had even taught several of them Hebrew, while he himself learnt Hebrew from the internet. Those followers who joined us – all male - ranged from ages 14-32 and beyond as they came in they shook the hands of the Rabbi and said to the Rabbi and myself, “shalom alaikhum” – a very close version of the local Islamic Pakistani “salam u alaikum” (also meaning peace be with or upon you) as they entered the room. The Rabbi also noted he now had three synagogues in different locations in Islamabad and in Pindi, showing how widely his network had grown. One of the followers, a young smartly dressed boy–in a dark shirt trouser, a red scarf—told me that while he was an employee behind the serving counter, he remembered me visiting ‘Tutti Frutti’ – a Pakistani frozen yogurt café with my children. Rabbi Aftab explained that this boy was now training to become a ‘bishop’.

Rabbi Aftab explained the key ingredients of his faith: being Torah Observant; not celebrating any Roman Christian feasts such as Christmas, Easter, Ash Sunday, and Lent; observing Shabbat and the seven feasts of Yahveh, Purim and Chanukah; circumcision of all their males; and being culturally Biblical. Yet, although they saw themselves as culturally Biblical, their self-identity as culturally Biblical was in perfect harmony with their being quintessential Pakistanis: the flowing clothes that they wore for modesty were mostly shalwar kameez (the national dress), the kippa that they wore on their heads was an ethnic Chitrali topi or a Muslim hat that every Pakistani wears at Friday prayers, and finally the scarf was a typical Pakistani robe to wear, especially in winter. The Pakistani culture that they observed in accordance with the Bible was not in contradiction but in perfect harmony.

Expanding on his Pakistani heritage and identity, Rabbi Aftab told me he had a Pakistani name because his grandfather told him they must respect the local culture and keep a Pakistani name; therefore, his son’s name is Umar Aftab. Umar is the Arabic Muslim name of the second Caliph of Islam and, therefore, it was fascinating for me as an anthropologist to learn that a Pakistani Jew – the son of a Rabbi is called ‘Umar’. Rabbi Aftab emphasized, “We are messianic Jews by faith, but not by ethnicity or race.” The Rabbi also took care to emphasize and clarify that, “In Pakistan, we have azaadi (freedom)”, adding, “We are patriotic and love our country.” Here was a nuance that not many people either globally or in Pakistan itself are aware of.

The Rabbi and his followers did, though, object to Westernization and immodesty. They also objected to stereotyping and labeling Pakistan as a terrorist state when in reality they said, “We are a poor nation. We are victims of terrorism not perpetrators. We barely have money to buy ourselves helmets for our scooters. How can we afford rocket launchers? We are ghareeb log (poor people).” At this the followers – mainly workers and laborers - laughed and nodded in agreement.

The Rabbi and his followers said they were closer to Muslims amongst whom they were welcomed and celebrated than they were to Christians with whom they struggled because of key differences such as, the Rabbi stated, “Trinity, 25th December and Easter”. The Rabbi stated, “deen (religion) is tawheed (oneness of God)”. Another follower of the Rabbi noted with interest, “Christians who see us think that we have become Muslims”. Rabbi Aftab emphasized calmly, “We have good friends among Muslims. They come to our houses and we go to theirs. We have amicable relationships.” He added, “When we talk to Muslims we both say we must learn our original languages of our holy books so we can understand our sacred texts better.” Muslims see this community, they said, closer to them. However, they differ over the divinity of Yashua, or Jesus, and His atonement. One young boy added, “Muslims say, your beliefs are correct. People locally are both inspired and confused by our faith. But we say Muslims follow us, not the other way around”.

The Rabbi said he had a lot of differences and arguments with Christians – he would write so passionately on Facebook against the Trinity that, he said, his arm pained. Rabbi Aftab said, “Against the idolatry found in Christianity, Muslims are united with us.” A lot of Christians he said had a problem with his writings. The Rabbi explained in light of these interfaith disagreements there were two things they could not compromise on: 1) buth parastee or equating another deity with God and 2) nudity. Their own women wore a covering on their heads and ideally did not engage in gazes with unrelated men. “Our women do not wear lipstick because it has pork lard,” he added. This is how muqadas (sacred/saintly) women behave, he said. But the Rabbi was quick to add “not the burqa! I am sorry to say but the burqa is neither Biblical nor Quranic.” Another boy who, like most of the other men in the room, had his head covered, explained, “to cover the hair for both men and women equally is respect before God”.

When I asked if the Pakistan government’s Ministry for Interfaith Dialogue had engaged with the community, they said they had no engagement or interaction with the Ministry. I asked how they supported their community. The Rabbi explained that they had no outside financial help. They barely survived on contributions within the small community. According to the sacred texts, all working persons are supposed to contribute one tenth of their earnings. Each one of the men worked as either a painter, a laborer, a contractor, banker, a government servant, or other. One tenth of their earnings went into maintaining the synagogue, celebrating biblical feasts and this growing thriving community of young Jewish Pakistanis.

When I asked how they felt we could improve our world, our country, our community, our society as humanity, one of the Rabbi’s followers – a banker – said in Urdu, “implement the Torah”. The Rabbi explained, “When we love the Torah we love each other.”

I learned I was the first person ever to interview the Rabbi and his community: this was a new community and a fast growing one. And no one else seemed to know about their existence. The longest-practicing Messianic Jew, Rabbi Asher, had been a member of the community for just two years. The newest member, a fourteen-year-old boy named Tanveer Masih, who had left school at the age of 12 and was barely given the confident to speak up, had just joined the faith two days prior. When I asked him as the youngest person there and also as the future of the community about his dreams, the others—in a culture where traditionally elders hold authority and importance—were a little taken aback that I shifted my focus to the youngest person of the community in the room. Rabbi Asher jumped into the conversation saying Tanveer had had a miserable life and had come to Pindi from Sindh in search of a better life. Tanveer replied to my question shyly, “I want to progress.” The older boys –as typical Pindi boys would do–laughed at Tanveer and I gently told them to encourage him instead. As a mother of a teenage boy myself, I called him “beta” (son) and encouraged Tanveer to seek out the best life possible for himself. As the youngest member in our session, I wanted to give him a universal message of greater confidence and hope. The other followers and Rabbi Asher said they all learned something from my visit: it gave them food for thought. Because I had laid so much stress on the younger generation they said they would give the younger boys more attention and encouragement than they previously had.

A beautiful prayer by Rabbi Aftab, who prayed for the success of my work and for greater understanding for me in the way of God to levels of greater depth and the success of his own struggles and that of his growing community, closed out this remarkable evening. He called this a ‘blessed’ and a ‘khubsoorat’ (beautiful) meeting and the Rabbi said he and his community were greatly honoured by my visit. Another follower—an avid consumer of the internet—said in Urdu, “I have seen your work on the internet but our meeting in person is far more special and you have honoured us”. The Rabbi said, “May ‘Khudawand’ (God) bless us and forgive us for anything we may have said that displeased Him.” With typical Pakistani South Asian warmth and hospitality, we said our good byes. A warm WhatsApp message from the Rabbi awaited me later on my phone: “It was a great pleasure to meet u and the kids. Thanks for visiting us. We have found you very kind and loving. Baruch YahShua!!!!”

As I traveled home, inspired by my meeting with this thriving brotherly spiritual community, I thought what rich stories of diversity this part of the world, in particular, holds in secret of which the world is unaware. The story of the Messianic Jewish community of Rawalpindi in modern day Pakistan should inspire us all to uncover the great-untold stories of diversity, not just of Pakistan and South Asia, but also of the world. Through these stories, we can continue to discover the great color in our world and build stronger bridges of peace, compassion, empathy and understanding – bridges we need now in our shared world more than ever.

Dr. Amineh Hoti

15th December 2016

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