MISSIO conference on the situation of the church in the Philippines – Pope Pius XII Catholic Center (January 12-13, 2016) Inter Faith Dialogue in the Philippines
The topic presents a lot of challenges and difficulties, especially today in Mindanao. I believe we can share only a few points in the limited time assigned to me for this conference. Before I start I would like to share a little background of my experiences giving more attention to some points for us to understand better the “Inter Faith Dialogue in the Philippines”. This is in the context of the history that still has a great impact in the relation among people of different religions, especially Christians and Muslims.
Inspired by the spirit of Vatican II Council and the declaration of “Nostra Aetate” of fifty years ago (October 28, 1965) I requested my superiors to send me to a mission where I can be directly involved in the specific mission of inter faith dialogue. After ten years of service in the formation program of PIME in Italy I was sent to the Philippines and assigned to Mindanao in 1977 together with Fr. Salvatore Carzedda, PIME.
My first Mission in 1977 was in Siocon, Zamboanga Del Norte (Mindanao). It was an isolated and vast area near the sea populated by Subanons (indigenous people), Christians and Muslims. Soon I gave attention to the different groups of Christians and Subanons, but I realized that I had to give more attention to the Muslim communities because of the ongoing conflict between the military and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). This is indirectly, a conflict between Muslims and Christians and remains a conflict with more alarming elements with the growth of radical groups sponsored by some Muslim countries.
This experience brought me to be involved in many efforts of dialogue and peace, sharing in a simple way my love, respect and solidarity to all. This was the beginning of a deeper reflection. In the first state of my experience I decided to live in a Muslim village learning their language, aspirations and becoming the friend of all. It was there that I re-discovered the spiritual dimension of dialogue that, after, I shared in many ways and still is part of my mission of dialogue. The reflection “Dialogue starts from God and brings people back to God” became the starting point of many inspiring moves of dialogue. I treasured this experience in the different adventures in the first years of my mission in Siocon, including the experience as a negotiator for the MNLF and the experience to be ambushed by the military who did not like to see me close to the Muslims and MNLF. This was the reason why I was forced to go back to Italy. That was for me a very painful experience. It was the first exile to my own country.
This event was also providential. Determined to continue my mission and find ways to return to Mindanao I prepared myself by studying in PISAI (Pontificio Istituto di Studi Arabi e Islamistica), Rome. My study of Arabic and Islamic subjects helped me to understand more Islam, the difficulties and the urgency of dialogue. After that experience of study I was invited to return to my mission as Regional Superior of the PIME in the Philippines and I put my residence in Zamboanga City. That was the time when I restarted my commitment for Interfaith Dialogue. And in 1984 I started in Zamboanga City the Silsilah Dialogue Movement with some Christian and Muslim friends.
That was the time of Martial law under the dictatorship of President Marcos. A simple beginning was encouraged by some friends. Among them I treasured the friendship of Bishop Tudtud, the bishop of Marawi. He told me one day: “Sebastiano, go on with this movement, remember this is a mission of one hundred years”. I was surprised by this comment at that time, but I accepted the challenge and today I understand that Bishop Tudtud was right.
A new challenge was offered to me when in 1989 the CBCP separated the Commission of Inter religious Dialogue from the Commission on Ecumenism to give more attention to the reality of the Muslims in Mindanao and the new chair person, Bishop Capalla, invited me to be the first executive secretary on the national level. That experience gave me the opportunity to know more about the reality of the Church in the Philippines, the bishops and, in general, the different aspects of the Philippine Church.
Unfortunately, this new challenge was only for a few years because during the Summer Course on Muslim-Christian Dialogue organized by Silsilah, Fr. Salvatore Carzedda, my close friend and collaborator, was killed in Zamboanga City on May 20, 1992. This event was connected with a new beginning of radicalism and violence in Mindanao we now call the Abu Sayyaf. The sad story was also the reason why my superiors asked me to go back to Italy. This was, for me, the second exile to Italy that lasted for three years. Called back by Archbishop Capalla to become again the executive secretary of the CBCP commission on inter religious dialogue, I put all my energy to move for the formation of dialogue in seminaries and institutions and other efforts to implement the spirit of dialogue according to the guidelines of Vatican II Council.
The major effort at that time was to assist Archbishop Capalla to start the Bishops- Ulama Forum (BUF – now renamed as Bishops-Ulama Conference, BUC). These and many other efforts were providential also for the growth of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement.
I focus now my attention on Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Mindanao, including the other forms of dialogue with people of other cultures and religions in the Philippines.
- HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
The first historical “encounter” between Muslims and Christians in the Philippines goes back to the 16th century, when the Spanish colonizers arrived in the archipelago that, they later called the Philippines, in honor of King Philip II of Spain. The real and positive “encounter” between Muslims and Christians still remains a hope, although, here and there, people can recall also good stories of friendly relations. “Moro” was the name given to the Muslims by the Spanish colonizers. This name bears the animosity and the scorn of the Spaniards towards the “Moro” people and their religion, which for centuries had dominated their Christian country. The same term, “Moro”, which was used earlier as a derogatory label against the Muslims in the archipelago, has now become a sign of identity for them, expressing their aspiration vis-a-vis present realities.
For almost three centuries the Muslims in the Philippines were the majority religious group. The Islamization of the Archipelago started officially, according to the major historical source, in 1380 when the guru and Sufi missionary Karim Al-Makhdum arrived in Bwansa (Jolo) and constructed a mosque on the island of Simunul, Tawi-Tawi.
The struggle of the Moro people, from the beginning of the Spanish colonization (1565) in the Archipelago, has been the struggle for self-determination and, up to now, those who are still active in the struggle consider themselves an unconquered people. This greatly affects the development of Muslim-Christian relations in the Philippines. However, there is a growing effort on the part of the government to unite people of different cultures and religions in the country.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards the Muslims were organized into sultanates: one in Sulu, the southern part of the archipelago, formed by almost five hundred islands; and one in Mindanao, the second largest island of the archipelago. The sultanates exercised control over the majority of the existing “datus”, and with them formed a ruling elite, very similar to the feudal system of the West. The first of these two sultanates was the sultanate of Sulu, established around the year 1450. It had established diplomatic and commercial relations with neighboring sultanates and had extended its presence and power up to the north of the Archipelago, with a strong presence in Manila.
Officially the Spanish colonizers arrived in the archipelago in 1521 led by Ferdinand Magellan, but the real beginning of Spanish colonization started in 1565 with Miguel Lopez de Legaspi.
The main reasons for Spanish colonization were:
a) to find sea routes in the Orient which was then controlled by the Portuguese
b) to have a new commercial and missionary approach towards China and Japan
c) to convert the tribes of the archipelago to Christianity.
The Americans entered the picture of colonization of the Philippines towards the end of the 19th century (1898) and soon started a “policy of attraction” and friendship with the Muslims of the Philippines. The first important step was the treaty of August 20, 1899 between General Bates and the Sultan of Sulu, Jamilum Kiram. This treaty and the control of “Moroland”, occupied by the Americans, opened the door for the formation of the Republic of the Philippines, accelerated by the effort of the Americans to offer opportunities of land to the people of the north of the country. In fact they invited these people to the south, promising “land for the landless”, “new opportunities for the poor” in Mindanao, then considered the “promised land of the Philippines”.
After a few years the Muslims in the south began to realize that this was a fabricated plan to control them and deprive them of their lands. The Muslim populace started to realize that they were being cheated, not only by the Americans, but also by many of their leaders.
In spite of this, the Americans, with the help of traditional Muslim leaders, were able to control the situation and finally on July 4, 1946 the new Republic of the Philippines was born, a republic where traditional Muslim leaders were integrated into the national body politic.
The term “encounter” in the Philippines often recalls the hostile encounter of rebel groups with government forces. For this reason we give here a short summary of negative and positive events of the last forty years, with special emphasis on “new encounters” affecting Christian-Muslim relations from the eighties to date.
2.2) Moro Struggle
The history of Muslim struggle in the past is at the base of the new stage of conflict of the “Moro people” in the last forty years. The first open move of the revolution was in 1968 in Mindanao, when the former governor of Cotabato province, Datu Uatog Matalam, publicly declared the formation of the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM) in order to “establish an Islamic state that shall embody their ideas and aspirations, conserve and develop their patrimony, their heritage under the blessing of the Islamic universal brotherhood”.
The territories included in the Declaration were the four Provinces of Cotabato (South Cotabato, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Maguindanao), Davao del Sur, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Palawan. It was a call to jihad that united different Muslim groups, especially young Muslim leaders interested in political discussions and analysis on “Moro” history and aspirations.
In 1971, Nur Misuari, a young professor of political science in the University of the Philippines in Manila, gathered a “Moro Assembly” in Zamboanga City and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was formed under his leadership as Chairman.
After the declaration of the MIM in 1970, Christian politicians of seven Cotabato areas started a counter movement called “Ilaga”. In the beginning these were organized groups for self-defense against the “Moro” groups of “Blackshirts” and “Baracuda”. The conflict spread with massive destruction and Muslim-Christian fighting, with the military helping on the side of the “Ilaga”.
Peter G. Gowing, writing about the Moro conflict in Mindanao in the seventies, gathered several statements from Muslims and Christians. On the part of the Christians, there was a feeling of uneasiness about Muslim culture and religion which was expressed openly by an Ilaga commander who, in 1972, stated that if the Muslims in the Philippines were poor, it was because of their religion, ideology and culture. On the part of the Muslims, Muhammad Ali Hasan, talking to a group of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels in 1975, expressed the feeling that Muslims and Christians are two different peoples; they have different identities and cultures and have been educated and guided with different aspirations. The culture of the Muslims is Islamic in nature, embodying principles and beliefs completely different from what is considered as the Christian oriented “Filipino culture”. These negative images were rooted in the mind of Muslims and Christians, giving religious color to the conflict.
Pres. Ferdinand Marcos justified the declaration of Martial Law on September 21, 1972 on the basis of the Muslim-Christian conflict in the south and other tensions in the country, which many believed were mostly planned by the military. The beginning of Martial Law saw the rise of Muslim aspiration with the organization of revolutionary movements. Foremost of these was the MNLF which later gained international recognition. The increasing violence and injustices against the people and the minorities at the time provoked alarm throughout the Muslim communities, resulting in great concern from the Islamic world. What made the horror of the Martial Law regime completely frightening was the spontaneous mushrooming of fanatic groups on both sides.
2.3) Government Efforts
There are two basic factors that have aggravated the historical conflict in Mindanao between the Muslim groups and the government:
a) The internal situation caused by President Ferdinand Marcos who used the Mindanao conflict as one of the reasons to declare martial law in 1972, so he could remain in power. This was made possible with the help of the military, and Muslim and Christian traditional leaders who helped President Marcos to remain in power as dictator, making the people poorer and more oppressed.
b) The international situation of Muslim groups and leaders like Nasser in Egypt and also the maoist movement and even radical Islamic movement which emerged in the world after the second war encouraged, in the years before the beginning of MNLF movement, the minds of some young Muslim leaders of the Philippines to search for new forms of power and “self-determination” in the name of Islam. The new spirit in those years has been nurtured to the point to justify violence and the call to jihad (struggle) in the name of Allah.
2.4) New Events
– Another important event in the recent history of the Philippines was the EDSA revolution of 1986 that brought the Marcos regime to an end and the installation of Cory Aquino as president. She was welcomed as a sign of hope for democracy. She took significant steps to solve the Mindanao conflict, including a historical meeting in Jolo with Nur Misuari, the head of the MNLF. On that occasion Cory Aquino said: “I will do anything in the name of peace”. Unfortunately, nothing relevant happened, although it was the beginning of new efforts for peace. After many “peace talks” and consultations, on Sept. 2, 1996 the government and MNLF reached a historical “peace agreement” during the Presidency of Fidel Ramos. It gave more power to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
– The division among the Moro groups and the emergence of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) under the Leadership of Hashim Salamat started new steps in the moro struggle in Mindanao. In this context the event of September 11, 2001 in the US and the emergence of terrorism with international links found followers in the Philippines. It gave birth to various new groups in particular the Abu Sayyaf group that is not officially recognized by the MNLF or the MILF, but which have created much violence through bombings, kidnappings and extortion. They have links with Jemaiya Islamiya (JM), a movement organized in Indonesia that aims to establish an Islamic state in South East Asia.
– On August 5, 2008, after a long process of negotiations between the GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines) and the MILF, the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement- Ancestral Domain between the two parties did not take place. The signing in Kuala Lumpur of the MOA-AD, part of the peace process, was aborted on questions of the constitutionality of the provision in the agreement which had to do with ancestral domain. Because of this unexpected development, violence exploded again, especially in some parts of Mindanao.
– The “aborted” agreement of the MOA-AD has generated a lot of new possible approaches to restart the peace process. One positive element that emerged from all these events was the clear understanding that the previous peace process between GRP-MILF was defective for many reasons.
- A VIEW OF THE MINDANAO SITUATION TODAY IN THE SEARCH FOR PEACE
The latest Bangsamoro Framework Agreement (BFA) between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed on October 15, 2012 was a sign of a new determination to end the long conflict in Mindanao. This agreement was started with the following framework:
– Instituting a just resolution to the war
– Transforming relationships
– Transforming the rules
– Changing the norms
In this context the Sabah issue emerged. It connects critical events in the historical continuum in Southeast Asia in general and in Mindanao and Sulu in particular. Prof. Julkipli Wadi during a special course organized by Silsilah on May 2013 focused on this topic and he emphasized and explained the beginning of this historical issue that still waits for a proper solution: “We cannot understand the Sabah issue and the Philippine history unless we broaden our perspective to the history of South Asia that is why the Sabah issue is very unique. The cession of North Borneo happened in the 17th century when, accordingly, one of the contesting brothers of the Borneo sultanate ceded the territory to the Sultan of Sulu in exchange for the help extended to him at that time to suppress a rebellion. That began the cession of North Borneo in 1704. The Philippines as a republic was not even formed yet until (Sabah) was leased in 1878 by Sultan Jamalul Kiram to an Australian national who organized the Bristish North Borneo Company to administer the territory. The latter transferred sovereignty to the British Government on July 15, 1946 and the British called it the Crown Colony of North Borneo. In 1963, the British Government turned over the territory to Malaysia to become part of the Federation of Malaysia, notwithstanding the pendency of the Philippine claim to the territory which at that time was already subject of negotiations, between the United Kingdom and the Philippines. This issue of Sabah remains still an obstacle for a comprehensive agreement and is not directly part of the ongoing peace agreement.
-Finally on March 27, 2014 the two parties signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) to be ratified as a political entity under the name of “Bangsamoro Basic Law” (BBL).
We are still in the process of approval for this political entity and at this point, after many consultations and sessions in Congress and in the Senate we have at least three versions of the BBL: The official version, the version of Congress and the version of the senate. In addition with the coming election on May 2016, most probably decisions will be postponed. Meanwhile, already we have signed the reaction on the part of the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) and other groups which are also supported by international groups like the ISIS. This situation will be detrimental for the Muslim-Christian relation and will become a bigger challenge for us who promote Inter Faith Dialogue and Peace.
- INTER FAITH DIALOGUE IN THE PHILIPPINES
The Filipino people, since the beginning of the Spanish colonization, have been affected by the conflict in Mindanao between the Muslims and the Christians as I presented above.
The influence of the Vatican II Council is, for sure, a major factor of promoting the concept of dialogue among the Christians in the Philippines, especially the Catholics who represent a bigger majority of the people in the Philippines. In fact 80 or 85% of the one hundred million Filipinos are Catholics. We also know that the World Council of the Churches (WCC) has been active on this area of Inter Faith Dialogue, even before the Vatican II Council, but considering that the Christians under the WCC are a limited number in the Philippines we can say that Vatican II still is considered the biggest challenge for the Christians in the mission of interfaith dialogue in the Philippines. This event and the many challenges of the emerging continent of Asia, where the Christians are a small minority, has contributed a lot in the formation of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC) with the historical gathering of 180 Asian Bishops in Manila (in November 1970) on the occasion of the visit of Pope Paul VI in the Philippines. If we summarize the orientation of the FABC in one word, then we can say that the key word is DIALOGUE.
The article of Felix Wilfred on orientations, Challenges and Impact of the FABC confirms this understanding and focus of the FABC. He says: “It is around this focal point of Dialogue that the FABC‘s understanding of the Church and its mission revolves. Dialogue frees the Church from becoming a self-centered community, and links it with the people in all areas and dimension of their lives. In the view of the bishops, dialogue in Asia needs to be pursued in three inter-related spheres, in particular:
– Asian religions,
– Asian cultures,
– And Asian immense multitude of the poor”
Thus, dialogue with religions, dialogue with cultures and dialogue with the poor. This beginning brought the FABC to many other steps of deepening the mission of dialogue of the Church in Asia. The FABC realized soon that the Church in Asia has to give more attention to the “dialogue of life”. They also started to develop the spirit of interfaith dialogue addressing the non-Christian “brothers and sisters of other faiths”( instead of using the initial expression of Vatican II “ dialogue with non-Christians”. From this beginning many others steps followed as part of the attention of the FABC. They also started the Bishops Institutes for Religious and Ecumenical Affairs (BIRA) giving special attention to dialogue with the followers of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Along the years they have also developed a “Theology of Dialogue”.
This great achievement of the Church in Asia was challenged more in the year 2000, during the great Jubilee, by the deeper reflection the Synod of Asia, as we can see in the document ECCLESIA IN ASIA (EA) prepared for that occasion. The Ecelesia in Asia document says that we have to read the signs of the times that reveal the “pedagogy of God”.
From the first chapter of EA entitled “Communion and Dialogue for Mission” we can find these focal points related to our topic:
– Sincere examination of conscience
– Origin of the Father’s loving dialogue
– A dialogue grounded in the logic of Incarnation
– The need of a clear Christian identity in Asia
4.2) The challenges for interfaith Dialogue in the Philippines
The conflict in Mindanao which started in a very visible way in recent times in the seventies and still is present in many ways has affected the Christian- Muslim relation in the Philippines.
The Church in Mindanao is relatively new. Officially started in 1910 when the first diocese was established in Zamboanga. Now Mindanao is an important part of the countries with a population of more than twenty million where the majorities are Catholics because of the immigration from the other parts of the country to Mindanao initially populated especially by Muslims and indigenous people. This was a strategy during the American time to control Mindanao, presented to the people of other regions as “The promise Land”. Indeed, Mindanao is a rich land. Encouraged by the Americans, Christians from the north and the center of the Philippines went to Mindanao after the first and Second World War. Today, the Catholic Church in Mindanao is considered the most dynamic part of the Church. Meanwhile the North and the Central part is considered a more traditional Church.
This composition of the Church in the Philippines is one of the factors why the spirit of the Vatican II Council found a more dynamic welcome in Mindanao and it was the reason why after the Vatican II Council the Mindanao Church, formed by more than twenty dioceses, organized the “Mindanao Sulu Pastoral Conference” (MSPC) in the seventies during the time of the Martial Law, under the dictatorship of President Marcos. In the eighties it was a split in the MSPC with the beginning of a new group inside the Church which formed the Mindanao Interfaith Peoples’ Conference (MIPC). This was considered a more “leftist” group in the Church and it was not welcomed by many bishops. This new group was created with the idea to be more “interfaith” in nature, including also indigenous people and Muslims and have contacts with international groups willing to support the struggle of the people of Mindanao in that specific time. The MIPC didn’t continue for a long time, but the PSPC is still alive and it gathers representatives of all the Mindanao dioceses every three years in different dioceses of Mindanao. The MSPC always gives attention to the Inter faith mission of the Church in Mindanao, but the implementation is still slow.
These are the most relevant steps that encouraged the CBCP to divide the Episcopal commission on Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue in two with the idea to give more attention to the Christian-Muslim Dialogue in Mindanao. The CBCP started the Episcopal Commission on Interreligious Dialogue (ECID) in 1989.
Among the efforts of Interfaith Dialogue in the Philippines I treasured also the experience of Bishop Tudtud. He was, in the eighties, bishop of Marawi with a population of 98% Muslim. In the Prelature of Marawi he focused his pastoral plan on the “Dialogue of Life and Faith” and supported in the Marawi Dansalan College run by a protestant group to develop and sustain a program of dialogue, especially dialogue with local cultures of Mindanao. Unfortunately, the experience of the dialogue of Dansalan College in Marawi ended after the death of Peter Gowing, a charismatic American pastor and scholar who contributed a lot for the promotion of good relation among Muslims and Christians in the seventies. Silsilah started with a new and specific identity in 1984 presenting the deeper spirit of Inter-faith Dialogue sustained by the spirituality of life in Dialogue with God, with the self, with others and with creation. Thus, Silsilah since the beginning invited all, especially Christians and Muslims, to experience Dialogue as an expression of love that brings solidarity and contributes in the achievement of Peace. With this spirit Silsilah has formed thousands of Muslims and Christians Leaders since then up to now.
It is a general recognition that Silsilah has given and continues to give a big contribution for the growth of the Inter-faith Dialogue in Mindanao and in the Philippines. As a first group consistent to its mission, from the beginning up to now, Silsilah feels the responsibility and challenge of this mission and it is determined to move on also in this difficult time of violence and radicalism in the spirit of “Padayon” (Move on). This is a commitment expressed especially after the death of Fr. Salvatore who was killed in Zamboanga City in his mission of Dialogue and Peace of Silsilah. Silsilah is moving with many programs. The first one started in 1987 and still continues, the Summer Course on Muslim- Christian Dialogue. Many alumni of Silsilah today occupy high positions in government, in the Church, among the Muslim and Christian groups. Silsilah has formed many educators, sisters, priests, bishops and Muslim religious leaders.
Another important event in the history of the Church in the Philippines is the PCP II (Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (1992). It reminds us of Interfaith Dialogue “as integral part of the mission of the Church” reaffirming that: dialogue based on hope and love will bear fruit in the Spirit “(PCP II 112-113).
In 1996 Archbishop Capalla and the Muslim leader Dr. Mutilan were challenged by the government to start an Inter-faith religious group that will give a special attention to the moral and spiritual aspect of dialogue in Mindanao, especially among Muslims and Christians to support the peace process.
I was directly involved as Executive Secretary of the ECID Commission to conceptualize and start the BUF (Bishops- Ulama Forum), now renamed as Bishops- Ulama Conference (BUC). The first gathering was in Cebu in 1996. For many years, up to now, the BUC has played an important role in the life of the Church in Mindanao, although for some political reasons now the BUC is not receiving the same attention that they used to receive by the previous government.
Those, like me, who have attended to the many gatherings can witness how BUC was able to put together Catholic Bishops, Protestant Bishops and Ulama religious Muslim teachers. The head of the BUC, Archbishop Capalla always emphasized that the BUC is the moral and the spiritual voice of the Muslim and Christian religious leaders of Mindanao. With this spirit BUC has helped in many ways in the peace process of Mindanao and BUC has promoted the same “formula” of gathering in other neighboring countries. One of the important steps of the BUC is the beginning of the Mindanao Week of Peace. The initiative was first promoted in Zamboanga City by the PAZ (Peace Advocates Zamboanga), but became an initiative on Mindanao level with the intervention of the BUC. This is a good program to invite many sectors, including government sectors to celebrate peace together. The Mindanao Week of Peace is also supported by the Presidential Proclamation No. 127 issued in 2001 declaring “The Mindanao Week of Peace from the last Thursday of November to the first Wednesday of December”. The BUC also started a youth group on the Mindanao level and supports many other initiatives like the Harmony Prayer of Silsilah, a universal prayer that BUC approved and encouraged. It was also promoted by the OPAPP (Office of the Presidential Advice on the Peace Process) on the National Level. This prayer is now spread around the country and around the world. Thanks to the many link persons that Silsilah is following in different countries.
Another relevant and emerging activity in the Philippines related to the Inter-faith Dialogue is the World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW) promoted by United Nations (UN) in 2100.
On October 2010 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed a resolution proclaiming the first week of February of every year as World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW), which “encourages all States to support, on a voluntary basis, the spread of the message of Interfaith Harmony and Good will in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship during that week, based on love of God and love of one’s neighbor or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbor, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions.” Inspired by this initiative that is very close to the spirit of Silsilah, the Movement started to share with other partners this new challenge and the first WIHW was celebrated in Zamboanga City in the year 2012. The National Ulama Conference of the Philippines (NUCP) was requested by Silsilah to lead the initiative with many groups which together formed the United Nations Interfaith Harmony Partners – Zamboanga (UNI-HP-Z). Silsilah committed to serve as the secretariat.
This initiative has also full support on the national level by the Republic Act No. 10525: “An act declaring the first week of February of every year as ‘World Interfaith Harmony Week’ in the entire country and mandating its observance by the different Government Agencies, signed by President Benigno “NoyNoy” S. Aquino III”. The success of this Republic Act started when the Silsilah requested Congresswoman Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco-Salazar (now Mayor of Zamboanga City) to sponsor a bill in congress. The Republic Act No. 10525 is part of the effort of UNI-HP-Z to bring the initiative of the United Nations to Congress.
This initiative follows the spirit of the open letter addressed to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian’s leaders of the world in 2007entitled: The Common Word. It was signed by 138 Muslim leaders of the world. This can be considered in the Muslim world as a new beginning of Muslim-Christian dialogue started by the Muslims. Silsilah with other groups popularized this open letter on the national level.
The effort of dialogue today in the Philippines is becoming a new challenge for many institutions and groups, especially in Mindanao. There is an increasing attention and effort in other regions of the Philippines with the growth of the Muslim communities outside Mindanao. The biggest concentration of Muslims outside Mindanao is in Manila, especially in Quiapo where Silsilah is helping the parish of Quiapo to form an interreligious ministry with different programs for Muslim and Christians of Quiapo.
We can list different groups on national and Mindanao level committed in interfaith dialogue. Some are more political in nature; others are more incline to social and Peace issues. Often gatherings of people of different religions are called “Inter Faith gathering”. There is also the effort to emphasize now the so called “Intra-faith dialogue” considering that still there are many issues to be solved among people of the same faith before having an “Interfaith dialogue”. These formulations are “Inter” and “Intra” Faith Dialogue. We in Silsilah rather prefer to present both forms of Dialogue as part of “Culture of Dialogue, Path to Peace”. Thus, we do not use so much the terms “Inter or intra religious/faith dialogue”.
Today the groups that emerge in line with interfaith dialogue are: the Peace Circle in Manila area, the Interreligious Solidarity for Peace in Zamboanga Area, the Inter faith group in Pagadian area, the Peace Education program of Miriam College in Manila, the Catholic Relief Services and other international groups which have groups in the Philippines like the Focolari Movement, the Religions for Peace, the Comunita’ S. Egidio and others. There are also many groups who promote dialogue and peace in Universities and other institutions, at the same time linked with some groups and agencies that do not last long.
The list can still be long. Silsilah as the first Movement for Dialogue in Mindanao and in the Philippines is happy of the many efforts, especially of some efforts with clear identity. Many of the leaders of this project are our alumni and friends of Silsilah and we collaborate with many of them in all possible ways. We are also happy to observe that many now promote the Culture of Dialogue that for Silsilah is not only a program, but a style of life and a spirituality that each one can apply according to the religion and the situation. The Great challenge remains for all to help many groups which have an interfaith program to overcome the idea of Inter-Faith Dialogue as a “strategy for peace” and move toward a deeper understanding of Dialogue and peace.
4.4) Strong and weak points of interfaith dialogue in the Philippines
The positive aspect is that there are many efforts of the Inter Faith Dialogue in the Philippines, but there is a lot to improve especially because:
– Most of the efforts of Inter Religious dialogue are initiated by Christians and are in line with the Muslim-Christian relation and peace process.
– Most of the efforts of Interfaith Dialogue are in line with the “strategy” of dialogue.
– There are still a lot of prejudices against the Muslims on the part of the Christians and vice versa. This is one of the aspects to consider in our Inter-Faith effort to be able to build trust and solidarity.
– The common complaint of the Muslims is that they have less opportunities in society. But we hear the same from the Christians where the Muslims are majority in number.
– Politicians play with the feelings of the people and use them for their vested interest. This is also happening with the issue of the peace process and the issue of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).
– There is an urgent need to do more on the level of dioceses and parishes to promote the real spirit of dialogue without fear.
– The Catholics are often the target for conversion to other religions, especially Islam. The Muslims have an “aggressive” program of conversion in some areas supported by a lot of money from some Muslim countries. Those who are converted to Islam are called “Balik Islam (Return to Islam).
– The Inter Faith Dialogue with other religions like Buddhist and Hinduism is presented only on big cities and do not have relevant impact on the national level.
This is a very difficult time because of radical groups present in the Philippines. We can say, we have in the Philippines local and international groups that promote violence. The one which is emerging now is ISIS. Mindanao is considered a very strategic area for ISIS to spread their ideology which has different names in different areas.
We have to work hard this time to build up a new praxis of “inter faith Dialogue” that reflects the real spirit of Dialogue. The great challenge is to convince the Christians and the Muslims that it is possible to remain with our own religious identity and be open to dialogue. This requires more effort of education starting from the children and moving to all sectors of society.
We have to overcome the temptation to move around the “obstacles” because we are afraid to face real issues.
There is the temptation to move toward a form of “syncretism” to avoid problems, especially on the part of the Christians. This is the time for the Christians and Muslims to rediscover the message of Love as a new expression of dialogue.
The great challenge for all is to accept the reality of other cultures and religions and learn how to deal with all as equal. We assist the conflict inside Islam on the level of religion and faith that brings divisions and violence. A similar thing also happened in the past among Christians who have justified fighting in the name of religion, like some Muslim groups are doing now.
Thus, the major effort of Inter Faith dialogue in the world and in the Philippines is to send positive messages using all forms of social media giving priority to the leaders, to the grassroots and to the youth.
There is a lot to be done; especially we need to make more efforts to build friendship and respect among different groups.
We capsulize all this efforts in the acronym C.A.R.E.
– COURAGE in our mission of dialogue today.
– APPRECIATION of what we find positive in other religions.
– RESPECT for what we do not understand and do not like in the practice of the others, providing that each one respects the basic law of the country.
– EXAMPLE to present the goodness of our religion with our life.
Indeed the future of peace in Mindanao and in the Philippines also passes from a correct understanding of Inter Faith dialogue and a correct understanding of the value of life as a gift of God for all. Thus, there is a need to look at one another as brothers and sisters, part of the same human family, created by the same God.