#FindRaza: Young peace activist goes missing for raising voice against religious extremism

While international organizations such as UNESCO are making tremendous efforts to empower young people in preventing and countering violent extremism in their communities, the recent disappearance of Pakistani peace activist Raza Mahmood Khan has come as a shocking development for youth in the South Asian region. The 37 year old is an ardent advocate of inter-faith dialogue within his own country, and a champion of cross-border dialogue with students and educators in India. He is known for his work as a co-convener with a well-known peace initiative named Aaghaz-e-Dosti, and for his criticism of religious extremism.

Last seen on December 2 at a public discussion that was critical of a hardline religious group, he has been missing ever since. The matter has been reported to the police but he has not been found yet. Activists, journalists and educators in Pakistan and India have been making strong appeals to #FindRaza but more people need to take notice and speak up. We need this young man to come back safe and sound.

I reproduce here an article that was first published in The Hindu on April 1, 2016. It offers a brilliant example of how committed Raza was to the work of peacebuilding, reconciliation and healing between communities.

In a heartening gesture of solidarity, 40 students from Class 7 of Mumbai’s Ecole Mondiale World School, gathered on Thursday morning to make cards to be sent to Ghauri Wisdom High School in Youhanabad, one of the Christian neighbourhoods affected by the suicide bombing in Lahore on the day of Easter Sunday.

Armed with chart paper, crayons, and sketch pens, the students wrote messages of strength and support for the friends, family, and teachers of Sharoon Patras, a Class 7 student from Ghauri Wisdom High School who died in the attack at Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park during the celebrations. His elder brother, Irfan Patras, a Class 8 student, was severely injured, and is currently recuperating at Jinnah Hospital.

One of the Class 7 girls at Ecole Mondiale World School in Juhu, Mumbai, decorated her card with a peace symbol, and sketches of colourful Easter eggs. Inside the card, she wrote a note urging the Pakistani students to not lose hope. She said, “The terrorist is the big high-school bully that you cannot complain about because he is too big and powerful. Oh, and everyone is scared of him. You have two options: either to be too terrified of him and stay in a corner whimpering, or fight against him.”

Another girl added, “I heard about the attacks on TV, and it made me sad. I wanted the children in Lahore to know that we care about them.” A boy from the same class said, “My mother’s friend lives close to Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park. He was at home when the blast happened. It was quite scary.”

Deviyani Pathak and Tulika Bathija, the teachers anchoring this solidarity initiative at Ecole Mondiale World School, have a personal history connected to Pakistan. Pathak’s grandparents migrated from Rawalpindi at the time of Partition in 1947, and she hopes to be able to visit Pakistan, and see the city where her grandparents once lived. Bathija’s paternal grandparents migrated from Shikarpur, and her maternal grandparents migrated from Sukkur. Both these places are in Sindh, Pakistan, and she nurtures the desire to visit the neighbouring country at least once, in order to reclaim her roots.

Grant Rogers, head of the secondary section at Ecole Mondiale World School, said, “I am proud of the teachers and students who initiated this project. In this day and age, it is important for us to concentrate on that which unites us as opposed to that which divides us.”

Jahanzaib Ghauri, principal of Ghauri Wisdom High School, said, “This is a time of tremendous grief for all of us. We lost one of our students, and another one is in a critical condition. The children who were close to them are very sad. They come and express their sorrow. It is extremely moving for our school to know that children from India too, a country that Pakistan has been in conflict with, are feeling our pain and loss. We are deeply grateful for all the love.”

The connection between these schools in Mumbai and Lahore was facilitated by Raza Khan, coordinator of the Lahore chapter of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, a cross-border peace initiative that engages young people from India and Pakistan in building ties of friendship through online and offline interactions. Khan said, “It was unfortunate that the Christian community was attacked on a day that is so significant for them. Many women and children got killed. The school in Mumbai wanted to reach out to those who were affected by this tragedy. We just played a small part by connecting them to each other.”

Writer, educator and researcher