Making Muslim-Christian connections

Episcopal nun joins women’s delegations to Afghanistan
May 31, 2004

SIX YEARS AGO, the Rev. Ellen Francis Poisson, OSH, joined the Episcopal-Muslim Relations Committee in the Diocese of New York. Part of the diocesan Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission, it was a small committee with no budget, she recalled. “But we were trying to do programs about Islam and trying to make connections with local mosques.”

“Then Sept. 11 happened, and suddenly we were really called on a lot to go out into parishes and talk to people, and we also tried to reach out to the Muslim communities.”

For Sister Ellen Francis, that commitment to reaching out led her to Afghanistan to see firsthand how its women were faring and what help they needed. Through the human rights group Global Exchange, she traveled to Afghanistan in March 2003 and again, as group coleader, in March 2004.

Delegations of women made the trips, she explained. “That was what really called my heart, was to go with a group of women and to try to meet with Afghan women, because we’d all been hearing a little bit for years about how difficult their lives were under the Taliban and wanted to see for sure what was going on.”

They also wanted to show that “we’re not walking away and leaving_ ... Western women do care about what’s happened to them, and we want to hear their stories, not just assuming that we know what they need.”

Despite the Taliban’s exit, lack of security remains an issue. “I think overall for everybody that we talked to, their first concern is for the security, because without security, really nothing else can happen.”

“The lack of security especially affects women,” she noted. “Under the Taliban, girls couldn’t go to school. Women couldn’t work. They even were afraid to go out of the house.”

In many places, that’s still true because of the presence of terrorists or remaining Taliban adherents, she said, adding, “There’s a huge problem with depression because Afghanistan has had 25 years of war, and virtually every family has been affected by the fighting.”

Some of the programs Sister Ellen Francis visited help women re-enter schools and the marketplace. Afghans4Tomorrow, for example, funds a school in a poor district of the capital city of Kabul that serves teens who, because of the Taliban’s restriction, never attended school. Sister Ellen Francis photographed one girl, 14 or 15, learning to write the alphabet.

“We also visited some literacy and vocational programs for the adult women,” she said. “It was encouraging to see programs I visited a year ago had expanded and were moving into some of the outlying areas.”

“Many of these programs train women to do handicrafts,” she said. “Now there’s an effort to try to market their handicrafts overseas, because there really is no tourist trade to speak of.”

Another area of concern is health care. “Many areas of the country have virtually no health care at all for women.”

Women also become mothers young. “A huge problem that the women are facing is the forced marriages, especially of young women, either for money — for the dowry — or to settle a dispute between two different clans,” she said.

Still, Sister Ellen Francis saw positive signs of change. She recalled visiting a hill overlooking Kabul. “When we were there a year ago, there was nobody there but a couple of soldiers and a caretaker. This year, it was absolutely swarming with little boys flying kites and playing music and selling bubble gum. It just had such a feeling of coming back to life.”

For Sister Ellen Francis, 57, the trip marked a return to the Middle East. Before becoming a nun in the Order of St. Helena, she lived in Iran during the 1960s and ’70s. “It was, for me, a very healing experience to go back again.”

The trip gave her a new perspective on Islam. When she lived with a Muslim family in Iran, she said, “it was like we had parallel paths and [were] very respectful one of the other.”

Since then, she said, she’s learned more about the differences between the faiths.

Islam and Christianity are “like two pathways to the holy, but there are bridges across,” she said. “Jesus is revered in Islam. In our [religious] order, we pray four times a day, and they pray five times a day. We have martyrs.”

During her visit, a group of women asked whether she had images of the Virgin Mary in her church. “Mary is highly revered in Islam,” said the nun, who is an iconographer. “There’s a whole chapter of the Koran that is dedicated to Mary.”

While much of her trips involved observation and discussion, Sister Ellen Francis also joined forces with one of her guides to donate 800 pairs of shoes to an orphanage.

To learn more about the orphanage or the Afghans4Tomorrow girls school, or in joining a Global Exchange trip to Afghanistan, contact Sister Ellen Francis at sisters@osh.org or at The Order of St. Helena, 134 East 28th St., New York, NY 10016.