by Scott S Bevan
Church of Scotland Minister, Peter Gill, has been bringing a touch of eastern glamour to his congregation at Wallneuk North Church in Paisley.
The 54 year old has been introducing various community events where Bollywood dancing mixes with Scottish ceilidhs to create a cross-cultural experience at the forward thinking parish.
Peter is proud to help take on the role of attempting to break down cultural divides, a mission which his parishioners describe as “building bridges, not walls”.
He said: “We’ve had Indian and Pakistani people here in kilts and then Scottish people wearing Saris doing the Bollywood dancing which they have learned from videos on Youtube.”
Reverend Gill moved to Scotland with his family in 2003, (and then to Paisley after five years in Hillington Park in Glasgow), following decades of persecution in his native land of Pakistan.
“Pakistan has been quite hostile in a way for some time.” He said “We had a dictator called Zia-ul-Haq, and under his time it became very hostile for the Christian community because he wanted to use Islam for his dictatorship, so he wanted to enforce the Islamic law of Sharia. There was already a blasphemy law even in the British constitution in law, but then they made some amendments in the blasphemy law and made it a little bit more difficult and anyone can use it as a weapon against Christians or the minorities.
“If you have some enmity or some issue and you are Muslim and you say, ‘oh you’ve done something or said something against the Quran or Muhammad’, then even if things don’t go to the court people decide to take the law into their own hands and stone the person to death or kill that person. So different people raised their voice against that kind of law, it’d been misused, but they were killed. Even some broad-minded Muslims – the governor of Punjab was killed by his own bodyguard. So because he wanted changes in the blasphemy law his own bodyguard killed him and then he went to the court and educated people, lawyers, garlanded him as a messiah or as a hero of Islam.”
It was this kind of hostility which led Peter and his family to seek a home elsewhere following threats made to them, and their first choice was Scotland. Peter’s father had converted to Christianity following the work of Church of Scotland missionaries in Pakistan post-partition and Peter himself had attended university here, so Scotland seemed like the logical choice.
He said: “We never wanted to leave Pakistan. That was our beloved country and we were very settled and I had a wonderful ministry there as well, but it was the persecution and discrimination which eventually forced us to move and leave Pakistan unfortunately.
“Scotland has been very welcoming, not only to me but I heard other people as well from other faiths. Lots of Pakistani Muslims are here and they’ve felt welcomed and loved and cared (for), so it’s a very welcoming place. Very friendly, loving, caring people.”
Congregation regular, Elspeth Hogg, 56, said: “One of the things which brought, certainly me here, was the fact that Peter was the Minister. I thought – well a congregation which chooses someone who’s not from here is probably going to be in tune with me.
“For me the interfaith thing is important. I think the world has a lot of things happening just now with people trying to separate different groups and that’s not what we should be doing. We should be reaching out.”
The U.K as a whole has come in for much criticism in recent years over a ‘hostile environment’ directed towards Muslims and ethnic minorities, which has helped compound some arguments over Brexit, but Peter, who describes once being beaten by a mob in Pakistan for his faith, is clear that, in Scotland, he has never experienced much racial hatred. He is also committed to working towards an interfaith policy, both for his church and in the wider community; a view which he has inherited from his family.
“My grandfather was very much into interfaith whether it be Sikh or Islam, just a general kind of faith, so he was into interfaith already, not very rigid practicing.
“I was very much into interfaith, bringing faiths together, but people thought, no, I’m trying to convert Muslims and bring them into the Christian faith but my thought was more bringing all faiths together.
“In Pakistan I had a vision of a ‘peace train’ – a whole train from north to south, and it was a five day journey – 500 believers on the train from different faiths. So I wanted them to mix up and get to know each other. Each station we got a very warm welcome by the local people.
“Eventually we arrived at Karachi, so we were given a very warm welcome, but then some people threatened us. They said “you were using the name of peace but you were trying to convert Muslims into the Christian faith”. The idea was to try to have a kind of interfaith gathering and bring people together and learn to understand each other.”
Peter is keen to point out that he has great respect for Muslims and the Islamic faith, but said: “There is always one fish which spoils the whole thing, because most people who are Muslim are very good. I still have friendships with them. I am in touch on social media and all over – my school mates, my teachers – but there are always one or two. The minority of people who are extremists.
“Everybody should have freedom to express themselves and share their faith, whether you’re Hindu, you’re Christian, you’re Sikh or Jewish or Muslim, whatever your faith is. It’s misunderstandings that sometimes lead us into enmity. There are enough wars and battles, so I wanted to promote peace, love, unity and harmony among all faiths, but that was misunderstood.”
At Wallneuk, however, Peter’s call for peace and unity across faiths and borders is more than welcome. The church plans to hold a Burns Night celebration on the 26th of January in which Peter intends to wear a kilt. He described his embarrassment the first time someone asked him if he were a “true Scotsman” and trying to explain to them that he was Pakistani before realising what they meant, but it is a culture which Peter embraces as the people of Paisley, and of Scotland, have embraced him.