The Silsilah Way of Dialogue and Peace


 Most people, when they hear "Silsilah Dialogue Movement", are immediately led to ask "Silsilah. What is that?" It is not a surprise because the word Silsilah is Arabic and not too many people have even tourist's phrases of Arabic.

  Fr. Sebastiano D'Ambra, PIME, the founder of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement, chose the word Silsilah because it expresses the idea of mankind's unity under God, the Creator of all. Silsilah is an Arabic word which literally means chain or link.

As used by the Sufis (Muslim Mystics), it describes a process of attaining an experience of the Divine. The same root word is used as "genealogical tree" which implies a spiritual chain of humanity as created by the same God.

Thus, "Silsilah" in the context of the Movement is taken as an inspiring and key concept to describe Muslims, Christians and people to describe Muslims, Christians and people of other living faiths who are moving together as one universal family towards a shared vision and mission of dialogue and peace.

The importance of getting people to accept each other as belonging to the same family was seen as a need by Fr. Sebastiano when he was assigned to his first mission post in Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte in Mindanao, in the Philippines. In 1977, when Fr. Sebastiano first arrived there, the rebellion of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) against the government of the Philippines was going through its most intense period. Although it was not a war waged for religious reasons it soon took on strong religious overtones since the MNLF leadership and soldiers were primarily Muslims and the Philippine leadership and military forces were basically Christians and Catholics.

Siocon then as now had a mixed population of Muslims, Christians and Subanons, one of the Lumads, the original inhabitants of much of Mindanao who over the years had become converts to other religions even as some remained followers of the "native" religion of the ethnic group. The hostilities between the MNLF and the government's military forces soon bred mistrust between the Muslims, Christians and Subanons of Siocon which affected how they related with each other.

Fr. Sebastiano sought to bridge the divide by opting to live in a hut which he had built in a lot owned by a Muslim in an area which had a dominantly Muslim population. Because he was seen as "neutral" both the MNLF and the military often called on Fr. Sebastiano to negotiate dialogue between them as they made their regular forays through Siocon and the surrounding areas. It came to a point where any misstep in his words could be interpreted as treachery by one or the other group and could mean a threat to his life. At one point he was about to be killed in Siocon by the enemies of MNLF. His superiors in PIME then decided to pull him out of Siocon. Fr. Sebastiano spent the next years in Rome where he undertook Islamic studies.

In 1983 Fr. Sebastiano came back to the Philippines and was stationed in Zamboanga City. Prompted by his experiences in Siocon and the reflections these generated, with the support of Muslim and Christian friends and the permission of PIME he started the Islamo-Christian Silsilah Dialogue Movement in 1984. The name was later changed to Silsilah Dialogue Movement.

As a movement Silsilah seeks to promote "deeper understanding of dialogue and better relations among Muslims, Christians and people of other living faiths with particular emphasis on the spiritual dimension of dialogue"

What does dialogue mean in the context of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement? In the movement "dialogue" is not understood as a strategy for resolving conflicts but as "love in action, in silence and in harmony". In his book "Call to a Dream" Fr. Sebastiano says

Silsilah appears to many as only a movement which contributes to the peace process,

promoting good relations among Muslims and Christians in Mindanao. In my vision, it is something more profound. It is a style of life that we need to experience 24 hours a day wherever we are. This style of life becomes more challenging when we find ourselves relating with people of different religions but share the conviction that together we can have a new vision of life built on love.

To be in dialogue thus is to live a style of life which means accepting and striving being part of a chain linking one to God, to the self, to others and to the whole of creation. Much of the troubles of the world stem from the disconnect we feel towards God, our own selves, others and creation.

Silsilah adheres to the idea that dialogue begins with God and brings people back to God. Silsilah believes that harmony between faith believers is anchored in a genuine understanding of the teachings of their respective faiths. This ideal has been strengthened and reinforced of late by the publication of "A Common Word Between Us and You" , an open letter sent in 2007 by 138 Islamic scholars to Pope Benedict XVII and the leaders of other Christian groups in the world. In this open letter the Islamic scholars refer to the core teaching in both Islam and Christianity which call believers to love of God and love of neighbor.

Silsilah has been inspired since the beginning of the new spirit of Vatican II of the Catholic Church which 50 years ago openly encouraged Christians to enter in dialogue with all, saying

The Church reproves, as foreign the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to "maintain good fellowship among the nations"

And specifically about Christian-Muslim relation emphasized:

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefits of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

Without meaning to neglect the other areas of dialogue, the Silsilah Dialogue Movement focuses its efforts and resources in the promotion of Muslim-Christian dialogue, considering that Mindanao is home to the biggest population of Muslims in the Philippines and they live with Christians who have also known Mindanao as home for several generations.

The Silsilah Dialogue Movement is administered by the Silsilah Foundation, Inc., a non-stock, non-profit foundation incorporated in 1985 and registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the Philippines.

The Movement pursues its mission of promoting inter-religious dialogue by means of programs directed towards the youth, people in their work places in government and non-government institutions, and residents in their communities.

One program with a very strong multiplier effect is the Silsilah Dialogue Institute. For the past 28 years it has been running the Silsilah Summer Courses – the month-long live-in Basic Course on Muslim-Christian Dialogue, the week-long Special Course and the week-long Intensive Course which is a telescoped version of the Basic Course for people who cannot stay for a whole month.

The Basic Course covers topics on basic teachings of Islam and Christianity; history of Islam and Christianity; the holy books (the Qur'an and the Bible); a beginner's course in Arabic. Effort is made to make the participants balanced in number in terms of religion and all the participants sit through all the sessions together. An important component of the course is the opportunity for the Muslim and Christian participants to live and interact with each other for a month, sharing meals and discussions and group activities. Surprisingly for many this would be a first experience for a Muslim or a Christian of close interactions with someone from the other faith. To this is also added the Exposure Experience for all participants. For 3 week-ends during the month participants stay with a family belonging to the faith different from the participant's own – a Muslim with a Christian family and vice-versa.

The course participants usually have a sprinkling of nationals from other countries, like Italy, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Cameroon, Brazil, etc.  An Indonesian participant had this to say of his experience in the Basic Course:

... I have to admit that it is not that easy to always keep [the essence of dialogue] in our mind and heart while we are doing our own struggle. That is probably why dialogue or work for peace requires a personal transformation as well. In Islamic term we can probably call it as jihad; a struggle to throw away our pessimism, personal interests .... Change them into sincerity and courage.

The Special Course, which began to be offered only in 1998, takes up a special topic relevant to dialogue and peace, and particularly in the context of inter-religious dialogue in Mindanao. A survey on the relevant topic for the course is conducted in the months prior to the run of the Special Course and the results shared with the participants for their information and discussion. The topics dealt with in the Special Course have been changing yearly. In 2012, the topic was, "Islamic Da'wah and Christian Mission: Source of Conflict or Challenges for Dialogue and Peace?"

The courses of the Silsilah Dialogue Institute are not the only formally structured ways to spread the ideas of dialogue. There are short 2- or 3-day seminars on the Culture of Dialogue, Path to Peace given for the youth, catechists and madrasah teachers, young professional leaders of the community and the like.

In addition to seminars and workshops the Movement has several other programs which are implemented to concretize what it means to "love in action, in silence and in harmony".

The Dialogue with Creation program seeks to instruct farmers in biodynamic farming, food sufficiency and nutrition. In the upland barangay of Baluno on the west coast of Zamboanga City Silsilah has put up the Escuela de Siembradores (School for the Farmers) where the farmers gather for instruction on productive farming techniques.  A small mill for rice and corn has also been set up for the farmers' own crop. The program seeks to engage the farmers and the residents of the area in concerns for conserving the environment. In this regard, with the assistance of the Movement a coop has been formed among the residents of the area which made it possible for them to be awarded a grant from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for tree farming.

The SilPeace Youth program spreads the ideals of dialogue among hundreds of Muslim and Christian students who together attend seminars and growth sessions. Simply interacting with one another in shared activities provides the environment which helps to bring down whatever biases the students might have picked up in other environments in the community. A summer camp organized every year brings in at one time nearly 200 students to the camp ground within Silsilah's Harmony Village where the students stay for a week -  sharing tasks, lessons, recreation and most important, sharing dreams and aspirations for the future.

The pursuit and the promotion of dialogue as this is understood in Silsilah is not an easy one. To bring as many as possible to live life-in-dialogue is not something that can be achieved quickly. As the late Bishop Bievenido Tudtud, who was bishop of the Prelature of Marawi at the time of his death in 1987, advised Fr. Sebastiano "Go on, Sebastiano, but remember that dialogue is work for a hundred years." 

"Dialogue starts from God and brings people back to God."  This is an idea that is held dear by those in the Movement. It might also be added that prayer sustains dialogue. One initiative of the Movement is the Harmony Chain which is a far- reaching program of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement. Across the Philippines and in many countries in the world many people - Muslims, Christians, Buddhists- are linked (thus the name Harmony Chain) in their common effort to pray the Harmony Prayer. People (individually, in the family or in small groups in the work place) become part of the chain when they pray the Harmony Prayer at a given local time.

In all gatherings of Silsilah the Harmony Prayer is either said or sung. Many other groups have recognized the wisdom and the beauty of the thoughts expressed in the Harmony Prayer and have adopted the prayer for their own use. Somewhere in this article are the words of the Harmony Prayer and how one may join the Harmony Chain initiative. 

Even as Silsilah promotes the vision of a society marked by the Culture of Dialogue, Path to Peace it is realized that many have actually been traumatized by experiences resulting from a breakdown of dialogue between groups. It is not just the rebellion against the government of the Philippines by mainly the NPA and the MNLF/MILF that has brought about the troubled conditions of Mindanao, especially in the ZamPen and the Sulu-Tawitawi archipelago. There have also been family feuds and kidnapping activities by criminal groups. Ordinary people have been vulnerable to violent incidents that happen in their own communities. Most at risk have been women and children. Recognizing this Silsilah, now runs the Trauma Healing program. The program began with a scoping of the situations in barangays in Zamboanga City, Basilan and Jolo.   Information was gathered through FGDs with residents of the target   barangays. From the information gathered a program was designed to train barangay leaders – selected officials, teachers and parents- in the basics of counseling and immediate intervention for community residents traumatized by violent incidents that happen in the barangay. The program does not field trainees as therapists but rather provides some individuals in the community with the basic skills to help trauma victims deal with their anxieties and fears until such time as more professional attention can be obtained. The family members are also helped to understand better the behavior of the trauma sufferer.

The Silsilah Dialogue Movement offers a full plate of programs and initiatives in the pursuit of its vision of dialogue. While Fr. Sebastiano D'Ambra, PIME is undoubtedly the moving spirit behind the Movement he is assisted by a committed staff and volunteers.  Foremost are the members of the Emmaus Dialogue Community, a lay Catholic consecrated group of single women whose charism is to work and promote dialogue. Affiliated with the Emmaus Dialogue Community is the Emmaus Circle which has as members professional men and women who also share the vision of Silsilah and are active in the various activities undertaken by Silsilah.

A group of Muslim women taking the example of Emmaus was organized in Silsilah, a group called, "Muslimah" (Muslim Women for Dialogue and Peace). Those who are attracted by the vision and mission of Silsilah become members with a specific identity in "Personalized Membership" and to some remain only friends of Silsilah

The main office of the Movement is in Harmony Village in Pitogo, Sinunuc in the western coast of Zamboanga City and about 7 kilometers from the city center. Harmony Village is a green wooded area of about 14 hectares which exude the peace and tranquility that characterize a soul in dialogue "with God, with the self, with others and with creation". In the village are different buildings that house the offices, the classrooms and session halls, the library, the dormitories, prayer houses (mosque and chapel) and other facilities for the use of those who come to know and learn more about dialogue.

We live in a world made small by jet travel and the other applications of technology, particularly by the Internet. But it is also a world of conflict and pain arising from the breakdown of dialogue in families, between tribes and nations. It is the vision of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement to work for a world healed by dialogue, a world made whole by dialogue, a world made one with God the Creator of all.