Written by Priyadarshini Sen, Religion Unplugged

When 80-year-old Jesuit priest Joseph Kalathil took 32 letters in a cloth bag from India to Pakistan in 2012, little did he know he’d become a pivotal messenger of cross-border peace.

With the peace letters written by schoolchildren to friends unknown to them across the border, he set out to build bridges between India and Pakistan—neighbors scarred by decades of conflict and hostility. The challenge seemed not only risky but insurmountable. Yet, Kalathil remained determined.

“I believe hand-carrying letters helps in dissolving hate and prejudices,” Kalathil said.  He belongs to the Jamshedpur Jesuit Order in Eastern India, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, and is currently posted in the coastal city of Puri on the Bay of Bengal. 

From 2009 to 2019 when Kalathil was posted in the north Indian state of Punjab, he traveled regularly to Pakistan—only 155 miles past the Wagah international border crossing between India and Pakistan. 

The Wagah army outpost is a popular tourist destination for its ceremonial lowering of each country’s flag every evening, paraded by soldiers from each side of the border. Established two months after India’s Partition in 1947, the flag ceremony is a symbolic display of ties between India and Pakistan.

Kalathil drew on his experience of harmony-building in the disputed region of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir to plan his cross-border work. In 2007, during politically-motivated religious violence and an ensuing breakdown of law and order there, Kalathil started peace dialogues between Hindu and Muslim communities in their religious centers. He received the Gandhi Peace Medal in 2008 from the Jammu district administration for his work. 

Enthused by his success, two Catholic bishops appointed Kalathil to start peace dialogues between India and Pakistan in 2011. But the Jesuit priest, despite his zeal, didn’t know how to get started or even where.

“I felt prejudices are so entrenched in both these societies it would be impossible to break the veil of hate without an inspired plan,” he said. “I thought maybe we could begin with children as agents of change.”

Relations between India and Pakistan have been mired in conflict since the violent partition of India in 1947, when millions of Hindus migrated into India and millions of Muslims migrated into Pakistan. The event remains one of the biggest and bloodiest human migrations in the world. Nearly 2 million people died in partition-related violence while about 15 million were displaced. 

The legacy of violent separation has endured, and today it centers on the border region of Kashmir in the Himalayas, India’s only Muslim-majority region claimed in full and ruled in part by each country. At the time of India’s independence, Kashmir joined India rather than Pakistan but with an agreement for semi-autonomous rule. Kashmir has remained a flashpoint over the last two decades, especially because of the accelerating demand for self-determination. Territorial disputes over the region have sparked the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1999, and even though a fragile ceasefire has prevailed since 2003, exchange of fire across the contested border—the Line of Actual Control—is commonly reported.

Kashmir seems like an unresolvable geopolitical issue, but Kalathil is focused on bridging the divide between different communities in South Asia inherited from the Partition and deepened in recent years due to religious polarization.

Sending letters of peace

Despite the obvious challenges, Kalathil reached out to three Catholic schools in Jammu, a contested border region at the base of the Himalayas. He asked the students to write peace letters to their Pakistani friends 60 miles away in Lahore, and then took these letters to three Catholic schools across the border. 

This happened only after months of persuasion. Only 32 students out of more than 3,000 agreed to write letters to their neighbors across the border, and there was stiff opposition from civil society and religious leaders who said the two nations could never come together. Yet, Kalathil relied on his faith to overcome their resistance.

“I’ve always turned to Christ’s teachings in difficult times,” Kalathil said. “Even during the riots that broke out during India’s bloodstained partition in 1947, people escaped fanatic groups by wearing the cross.”

When the priest was stopped by security officers on the border after his first trip in 2012, he drew on his Christian faith and Jesuit convictions to avoid further interrogation or arrest.

“Jesuits have been targeted for their work across India, but that hasn’t ever deterred them from promoting peace,” he said. “We draw inspiration from Pope Francis’s work in conflict regions around the world.”

For decades, Jesuits have mobilized tribals, minorities, women and social outcasts for non-violent protests against violation of their rights by the State and government agencies. They’ve also worked toward safeguarding the environment, livelihoods and land rights against corporate interests. 

Inspired by Gandhian ideals and Jesus Christ, Jesuit activists and priests in India have been critical agents in the promotion of a participative democracy and inter-religious dialogue. Yet, many like Father Stan Swamy, have been accused of inciting violence and conspiring to overthrow the Indian government.  

Forging ties with Pakistani students in every subsequent trip proved challenging for Kalathil, but far greater were routine harassment and inquiries by the police, army personnel and counter-intelligence agencies. 

On one of his trips, an army officer softened up after interrogating the Jesuit priest. “I was intensely cross-examined on my way to Lahore,” Kalathil said. “But when the army officer heard about my work, he said please promote peace because even our lives are in danger in these areas.”  

By 2016, the number of students who volunteered to be part of Kalathil’s cross-border work swelled to more than 1,000 in each country. 

“The reason why Father overcame such challenges is because he has an authentic desire to end war hysteria, and jingoism,” said Monica Babar, a Lahore-based college student who was involved with the peace initiative.

Likewise, the number of schools grew to 35 in Pakistan and 31 in India.

“Like Gandhi, Father’s belief in peace has become infectious,” said George Abraham, a Catholic priest with the Diocese of Delhi. “These children, who are going to be decision-makers tomorrow, will be keen to send out the message of inclusion and love in a polarized world.”

A student from St. Anthony’s High School in Lahore sent a letter to his friend in India in 2016 in which he wrote, “It’s so futile to fight over Kashmir. Can we not live peacefully together? We were one.”  

Though Kalathil’s work started at Catholic-run schools in India and Pakistan, he now involves Muslim and Sikh-run schools, private and government schools.

Amrinder Singh, former general secretary of a Sikh seminary in Punjab, said Kalathil has inspired hundreds of students at their seminary “who are now aspiring to be messengers of peace in South Asia.”  

Inspiring their parents and grandparents

With time, some students have persuaded their parents, grandparents and members of their communities to join peace initiatives. Some teachers have volunteered to write letters to teachers across the border. Women’s groups, lawyers, writers, seminarians and non-profit groups have also joined the peace initiatives. More recently, Catholic congregations have also joined, while the Archbishop of Lahore has urged the business community to participate.

These groups meet once every three months and discuss the work of regional well-known peace activists such as Gulalai Ismail, Kailash Satyarthi and Faizal Edhi. They also discuss ways to connect with their relatives living across the border and ideate to break prejudices in divided regions that see more conflict.

The Women for Peace group in Lahore that started with only six members in 2014 has grown to 25, including a member of the Punjab Assembly of Pakistan.

“The biggest success for me has been the participation of women. Most of the students are girls and several women teachers are involved as well,” Kalathil said.

By working closely with women, Kalathil said he has learned more about humanity, social and cultural mores.

“In regions of conflict, you have to be empathetic and see things from others’ point of view,” he said. “In that sense, women are the most effective mediators in sensitive political and social conditions.”       

Even after the COVID-19 pandemic derailed Kalathil’s plans to carry letters last year, he constantly looked to women for support to organize seminars, workshops and online discussions about cross-border peace.

“He’s very futuristic,” said Father Jerry, a Jesuit priest who joined Kalathil on one of his trips to Pakistan. “COVID-19 has given him an opportunity to bring people together against bigotries and hate-mongering.”           

In the eastern Indian state of Odisha where Kalathil is presently ministering to the poor and social outcasts through self-help groups, educational and health programs, his peace approach has helped unite people across different castes, cultures and religions.

He set up the Loyola peace ashram in 2019 where he conducts medical camps and provides education to the poor. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, he has been focusing on the poor and migrant workers who’ve been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, besides initiating inter-religious dialogue between communities.

“The work of Jesuit priests such as Father Kalathil is critical in the nurturing of values such as equality and solidarity,” said Anthony Raj, the principal of Loyola College of Education in Jamshedpur. 

Inspired by Gandhian ideals, Christ’s teachings and the core beliefs of Sikhism such as selfless service, love and inclusivity, Kalathil plans to visit Pakistan later this year to “appeal [for] peace and give hope to the hopeless.”

“I believe differences are a gift from the universe,” Kalathil said. “We need to recognize they exist so we can learn from each other and grow through our variances.” 

Priyadarshini Sen is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. She writes for India and US-based media, including Religion Unplugged, Religion News Service, PRI The World, the Washington Post, The Wire, The Hindu, Outlook and The Print. Follow her on Twitter @PriyadarshiniS_.