Nazir Ali: From Anglicanism to Rome my battle against extremism

Forced to flee Pakistan in 1986, for 15 years bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir Ali chose Catholicism last year. He tells AsiaNews, "The persecuted will renew our Churches. The Synod? We must be on guard against outside pressure groups and listen to yesterday's believers as well." 

Milan (AsiaNews) - A persecuted Christian from Pakistan, for years an Anglican bishop in Britain, since last year a priest of the Catholic Church for the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, the personal prelature that welcomes those from Britain  who return to communion with Rome. Also present at the recent assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (Fabc), held last month in Bangkok, was 73-year-old Anglo-Pakistani prelate Michael Nazir-Ali, who gave a talk greatly appreciated by bishops from across the continent.

Born in Karachi in 1949, Nazir Ali became bishop in Pakistan in the diocese of Raiwind in West Punjab in 1984: at that time he was the youngest prelate in the Anglican Communion. Two years later, however, it was the then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie who had him expatriated because he was threatened by Islamic extremists. In Britain he was then secretary of the Christian Missionary Society and for 15 years bishop of Rochester. Until in 2021, personally increasingly distant from Lambeth Palace positions, he chose to join the Ordinariate. "Today I teach at Oxford, together with lay colleagues," he says, "but I am also starting a course on Anglicanism in Rome. I try to help in any way I can."

You are originally from Pakistan a place where there is so much suffering of Christians today.

In Pakistan we have unfortunately seen how even a small number of people when they come together can transform relations between people of different faiths, making them go from quite good to quite strained. My commitment has always been to moderate Muslim public opinion, to make sure that there is greater freedom for all and to make sure that this voice is heard. Because, especially in the media, the extremists dominate the scene. 

And when these reports result in outright persecution?

I have experienced it personally, but it is not just in Asia. I always say that persecution starts with discrimination and exclusion. And now it is happening in Europe as well. I just wrote the foreword to a book by a Catholic nurse in Britain about how opportunities for practicing Catholics are limited in the medical world. People say, "It's not like in Iran or Pakistan." That's true, but that's how it started there too: with discrimination and exclusion.

How can we confront extremists?

There are several avenues. There is the battle against unjust laws like the blasphemy law. Some of my Muslim friends told me that when the Prophet was insulted he forgave the people who did it. We need to make sure that people are heard in the courts. But more generally: we need an atmosphere of freedom. I also say to people of other religions: if someone says something about your faith, give them a response. However provocative he may be, don't try to shut him up, give him an answer. This is the way of those who give an account of their faith and hope. 

Toward those who concretely suffer from persecution, then, the first step is to make ourselves a voice so that their cry is heard in international courts and by political leaders. And to go in person: you cannot be close at a distance. And then welcoming people who come to Europe in search of freedom. They also come to renew our churches. This, too, is perhaps part of God's providence: we know from the Bible that the church has always grown with the witness of people who have fled persecution.

Pope Francis insists a lot on the theme of synodality. What can your experience in the Anglican Church add to this process?

Synodality simply means walking together and it is good that the laity are also consulted. But the experience of the Anglican and Protestant churches teaches that we have to be careful of pressure groups outside the church, which can be very active and well-organized. Even a few people can make a big noise.

Second, the opinions of the people consulted must be weighed, sometimes even evangelized. One cannot simply say: this is the voice of God's people. It may or may not be; we need to develop a critical sense about it, especially if some people have been given the ministry of leadership in the Church by God.

Third, the sensum fidelium is not just the opinion of people today: it is the sense of faith throughout the centuries, it has a diachronic as well as a synchronic aspect. This is not the first time people have expressed themselves; in the early Church there were many large demonstrations outside bishop's residences. Even outside the councils there were people who said they wanted the blessed virgin Mary to be called theotokos, mother of God.

How do you see the current stage of the ecumenical journey?

The Church must engage in ecumenism because we see that there are many elements of truth present in different Christian communities. And this is what must move us toward greater unity. It must be a principle, it cannot be just a feeling or a sensation; it must be based on our appreciation of the truth of history. For example, regarding the nature of the Eucharist, it is possible, as Paul VI said, to express its truth in different ways, the same truth. The Eastern Churches, for example, have a special kind of language compared to the Western Churches. People can learn from each other.

How can we turn ecumenism into common witness in a continent like Asia, where Christians are a small community?

The impact Christians have in Asia and Africa is not proportional to the number of people: their service in education, health care and so many other fields is crucial. We must seek a combination of dialogue, witness and service. By dialogue we learn, by witness we say something ourselves, and in service we bring Christ to people. I think this is the way to journey together day by day.