Peace Profile: Sebastiano D’Ambra

In an age of rampant terrorism, Islamophobia, and prejudices between Christians and Muslims, Sebastiano D’Ambra’s life, dream, and works for peace serve as inspiration in this battered and hurting world. D’Ambra cried out for peace, dreamed of peace, and worked for peace between Muslims and Christians in the Philippines for the whole length of his missionary life. Who is D’Ambra and what made him dedicate his life building peace between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao, Philippines?

Sebastiano D’Ambra is an Italian missionary priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), who came to the Philippines in 1977 when Martial Law was raging there. The situation in the Philippines then was characterized by unrest, human rights violations, media repression, and the war between Muslim rebels and the Philippine military. Muslims comprise around 8 to 10 percent of the total population in a predominantly Christian population in the Philippines. Most of the Muslims reside in Mindanao, the southern part of the Philippines, but Christians who migrated to Mindanao from the northern and central parts of the Philippines live side by side with them.

D’Ambra recalled in his book, Call to a Dream: The Silsilah Dialogue Movement, that the first thing he learned when he landed at the Zamboanga City airport in 1977 was “the difficult and problematic relations between Muslims and Christians.” This was painful for him to realize, but the pain he felt became more acute when he heard many stories of mutual fear, deep prejudices, and biases implanted in the hearts of Muslims and Christians for one another. He heard many stories of violence and killings—of Christians against Muslims and Muslims against Christians. He found himself a witness to acts of violence like the burning of houses, churches, and mosques, and the dislocation of whole communities and people, mostly women and children, as well as the presence of military check points all around.

Confronted with almost insurmountable difficulties in building dialogue and peace among Muslims and Christians in the Philippines, D’Ambra cried out for peace in his heart as he experienced a sense of powerlessness in the midst of so many problems. In his prayer time, he asked God what he can do in the midst of conflict and violence. He felt the desire to be a bridge between Muslims and Christians, and he also reached out and made friendship with the Subanens, the indigenous people in Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte where he was assigned, who are deeply affected by the conflict between the military and the Muslim rebels, caught as they were in between the conflict and fighting.

D’Ambra’s desire to be a bridge between Christians and Muslims in the Philippines was concretized when he witnessed the thousands of Muslim refugees from different areas near Siocon who fled to a Muslim community near the sea, which he visited during week days from the area where he was assigned. He personally heard and saw the stories of Muslim refugees, of children dying every day, of old and young women looking for food, and of military abuses. He started to live in the house of one of the relatives of the first of his Muslim friends, Habib Mujella, shared their simple life, listened to their stories and aspirations, and offered help in any way he could. He built a nipa hut near the Siocon River and named it “Muslim-Christian Brotherhood.” This was his first initiative in the Muslim community. It became a meeting place for Muslims and Christians. This experience lasted for a few months until the military from a nearby checkpoint threatened D’Ambra for defending the Muslims from their abuses.

D’Ambra felt the calling to be in solidarity with the Muslims, and responded to it by actually living with them. As he lived with the Muslims, they all became his friends. They invited him to their homes and drank coffee with them. He joined and shared their joy in celebrations of weddings and other events. He suffered with them, too, during painful events like the death of their loved ones. He built a house near the sea to live with the Muslims, and ended up becoming the “father” of all. The Muslims brought their visitors to D’Ambra’s house and invited him to meet their visitors. His day was occupied caring for the sick among the Muslims, treating their wounds and infections with basic first aid, and giving medicine for their illness. He learned to respect and appreciate how Muslims prayed and realized the importance of respect and appreciation in dialogue. He learned the Tausug language spoken by the Muslims.

Old and young Muslim men came to visit him in his house within their community and asked him many questions about his family, country, and why he left his country to live with them. They asked him many things about the universe and the lifestyle of people from other countries. They talked with him about the Muslim struggle and about the issues brought by the Muslim rebel group known as Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) against the government. D’Ambra had deep experiences, of encounters and dialogues, with the Muslim community, laying the foundation for the Silsilah Dialogue Movement (which will be discussed below).

In 1979, D’Ambra became a negotiator between the Muslim rebels and the military. Having gained the trust and friendship of the Muslims, D’Ambra was asked by an MNLF commander to assist some of them who had decided to surrender to the government. D’Ambra took this as a sign that he needed to start a peace zone in the town where the Muslim rebels who wanted to surrender were present. For more than a year, D’Ambra helped and traveled with armed Muslim rebel groups on their way to surrender to the government and became a peace negotiator between them. In his person, the Muslim rebels had an ally and friend, and his presence also at times spared the rebels from being strafed with bullets by the Philippine military. It was on one of the trips with the Muslim rebels and their families toward surrender that he noticed an old man holding a worn-out Qur’an in a bundle. The old man carried the Qur’an as he continuously traversed the forest and mountains, and it was at this time that he saw the importance of the Qur’an for a Muslim.

There was one incident that deepened D’Ambra’s solidarity with the Muslim rebels for whom he acted as a peace negotiator with the Philippine military for over a year. While camping in a given place, the Muslim rebels noticed that the military were surrounding them; hence, their commander (named Commander Magellan) told D’Ambra to flee to the nearest village while they would move to the mountains. D’Ambra protested that he had to stay with them. Thereupon, Commander Magellan told him that they will protect him and will be ready to give their lives for him. It was for D’Ambra a moment of realization that in the heart of every person, including someone like Commander Magellan who was responsible for many attacks, bombings, and killings in many areas including the center of Zamboanga City, there is always something good to discover.

D’Ambra’s life became at risk as a negotiator between the Muslims and the Philippine military because there were some military who resented his defense of the Muslims from military abuse and wanted him eliminated. In Siocon, a professional killer from the military came to Siocon to kill D’Ambra, but, instead he hit and killed a young man who had helped D’Ambra arrange a meeting with the Subanen indigenous people. Because of this, D’Ambra was ordered by his superior to leave the Philippines and go back to Italy.

The exile to Italy proved to be beneficial and vital to the future of the priest’s mission as he was allowed to study at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome from 1981 to 1983. He had quality time to reflect and synthesize his past experiences, and to pursue further studies in Islam and Arabic. In his studies, he grew in knowledge and appreciation of Islam and he was especially touched by the experience of the Sufis (Muslim mystics) like Al-Gazali. He learned that for the Sufis, one priority is the “Silsilah,” which is the Arabic for “chain,” which links them to God. He realized that the Sufi experience is one of the most convincing examples that dialogue in Islam is a spiritual experience that can hasten the process of personal and social transformation. It was this that inspired him to share this concept with the Christians and Muslims in the Philippines in the spirit of dialogue. In D’Ambra’s words:

I believe that anything that helps us to be linked or chained in dialogue with God, ourselves, others and the whole of creation, must be pursued. ‘Silsilah’ has the spirit, not only because its origin comes from the experience of a people who understood the deeper meaning of ‘Silsilah,’ of being part of a chain linking us to God, ourselves, to others and to the whole creation.

D’Ambra explains that the concept of Silsilah is applicable to the universal experience of faith of Muslims, Christians, and peoples of other faith traditions. It was clear to him that the vision of Silsilah, although nurtured in the context of his Mindanao experience, has to extend to all peoples of other cultures and religions. The priest felt at the same time that his special calling was to focus on Muslim–Christian dialogue, which inspired him to propose an initial name to his dream: “Islamo-Christian Silsilah Dialogue Movement,” of which later “Islamo-Christian” was dropped, and what remained was “Silsilah Dialogue Movement.” This change came about because D’Ambra and those who shared his cause thought that their ultimate goal is to be in dialogue with all, although their priority and focus is among Christians and Muslims.

The Silsilah Dialogue Movement was inaugurated on May 9, 1984, founded on D’Ambra’s belief that “if Muslims and Christians have a deep experience of their respective faiths, this will open the path to real Muslim-Christian dialogue, because it will guide them to God’s love, mercy and compassion.” The Silsilah Dialogue Movement did not proceed without difficulties, not just from those who misunderstood their mission, but also from those who meant violence against them. Three acts of violence against the movement were: two bombs were sent as a gift to one of the members of the Movement who was a very committed and respected old woman; an attempt to kidnap D’Ambra by an MNLF group; and the death of Salvatore Carzedda on May 20, 1992, 11 days after the eighth anniversary of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement. Carzedda was D’Ambra’s companion in coming to the Philippines, and he also worked with D’Ambra in the Silsilah Movement as director of the Silsilah Bulletin and as a lecturer in the summer course and other conferences and meetings. On May 20, 1992, he was shot to death by a motorcycle rider when he was on his way home to the PIME house at night. He was riding in a car that looked similar to the car of D’Ambra, who could have been the real target for killing.

To avoid threats to his life, D’Ambra was recalled to Italy by his superior. This exile became a time for him to visit some communities and hermitages in Italy to pray and to reflect. Many tried to persuade him to remain in Italy, but after prayerful discernment, it became clear to him that his mission was to go back to the Philippines to share the pain of the death of his friend and co-missionary, Salvatore Carzedda, and thus to affirm the importance of martyrdom in his mission of a life-in-dialogue and to continually witness to hope for peace and harmony in the face of conflict and violence.

In D’Ambra’s thought and reflection, the concept of “Silsilah” in the Movement “is taken as an inspiring and key concept to describe Muslims, Christians and other people of living faith who are moving together as one universal family towards a common vision and mission of dialogue and peace.” Being the founder and soul of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement, D’Ambra advocated for a “life-in-dialogue,” where dialogue is not a strategy, but a spirituality and a lifestyle that “witnesses to a deeper relationship with and respect for people of different cultures and religions; a lifestyle that challenges all to build together a society where God’s values and ethics are the guiding principles in journeying together towards harmony, solidarity and peace.” The spirituality of life-in-dialogue is anchored on the following four pillars: first, dialogue with God, who initiated the dialogue with humankind leading to a loving relationship with God; second, dialogue with self, which means loving and understanding one’s self by caring for the self in all its aspects; third, dialogue with others, which means respecting, understanding, accepting, and appreciating all people from diverse religions and cultures for a deeper and better harmony, solidarity, and peace in society; and fourth, dialogue with creation, which is caring for and protecting the ecological system.

D’Ambra envisioned the Silsilah family as being composed of Muslims, Christians, and people of other faiths. Silsilah, which essentially means “chain,” or “link,” a process of attaining an experience of the Divine as used by the Sufis, the Muslim mystics, also implies a spiritual chain of humanity as created by the same God. Hence, Silsilah describes Muslims, Christians, and people of other traditions and faiths moving together as one universal family toward a common vision and mission of dialogue and peace.

To realize this dream for spiritual chain of peoples from different faiths, especially Muslims and Christians, D’Ambra with the help of his Christian and Muslim friends, established the Silsilah Center and the Harmony Village. The Silsilah Center in Zamboanga City is a venue conducive for Muslims, Christians, and people of other faith traditions to dialogue and to feel at home. The Harmony Village, a 14-hectare farm and woodland nestled on a hill overlooking the sea, eight kilometers from the city proper, became the home of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement. In it can be found the administrative offices, training center, facilities for live-in seminars, prayer and solitude areas, and demonstration areas for organic and biodynamic farming—all aesthetically put in place.

Throughout the years, the Movement was able to conceptualize many programs and activities. Foremost is the Education and Formation Program provided to members of the Movement and people in the larger community to internalize the Silsilah Vision-Mission, deepen values and attitudes toward a life-in-dialogue, help appreciate differences of culture and religion, and thus develop wholeness in becoming men and women of dialogue. It provides formation for its own regular members and for people who are not yet part of the Movement through the Silsilah Summer Course consisting of a basic course, a special course, and an intensive course; orientation seminars on the culture of peace through dialogue with God, self, others, and nature; library and research; and the exposure-immersion program. The Interfaith Council of Leaders is an initiative to invite Muslim and Christian leaders of the city and other parts of Mindanao to be part of the movement by actively participating in or sponsoring activities focused on social issues affecting peace.

The Tulay Bata: Forming Children to Become Bridges of Peace involves educating the children in the kindergarten and elementary levels at their solidarity communities located in the poor areas of the city with the culture of peace, so that they will be the future men and women of dialogue and bridges of peace. The SilPeace, or Silsilah Youth for Peace, concentrates on youth in schools and out-of-school youth by giving them an ongoing formation and follow-up activities with the help of a youth council formed by the coordinators and representatives of different SilPeace groups.

The different programs and activities of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement throughout the years demonstrate its holistic approach to a life-in-dialogue with God, self, others, and creation. The Silsilah Peace and Development Services is the social arm of the movement doing its holistic community service by building harmony zones in communities, by giving formation to Filipino workers going abroad, so they will become instruments and bridges of dialogue and peace to the country of their destination, and by giving formation as well to the inmates in the local prisons on the culture of peace.

The Media for Dialogue and Peace is the use of media to share success stories and positive attitudes of hope for peace through dialogue with the publication of the Silsilah Bulletin, a quarterly magazine that started in 1985, the formation of the Youth in Media for Dialogue and Peace, the publication of books, and the use of radio and television to share the good news of their experiences in promoting dialogue and peace. The Dialogue with Creation Program provides training to farmers on sustainable agriculture through organic and biodynamic farming, community organizing of farmers into cooperatives, and environmental advocacy on the protection of watershed areas from threats like mining companies and other environmental concerns. The Silsilah Forum launched in 2004 aims to give formation to the alumni and friends of the Movement in their own areas to sustain their commitment by coming together regularly in fellowship, sharing of experiences and prayer, and mutually strengthening and sustaining each other’s spirituality and commitment to dialogue and peace.

On May 9, 2014, the Silsilah Dialogue Movement celebrated its 30th anniversary. May 9 is also the birthday of D’Ambra, signifying that his birth on earth is the birth of the Movement for which he has dedicated his life. The Movement has won national peace awards and international peace awards. The Movement received the 2013 Goi Peace Award, awarded by the Goi Peace Foundation, a Japanese foundation engaged in the promotion of peace beyond the barriers of race, religion, and creed. In 2014, the Movement received the prestigious World Interfaith Harmony Week Award that is sponsored and supported by the King of Jordan Abdullah II. As D’Ambra received the award, he pointed out that “when the forces of destruction are working hard, this is also the time when the forces of peace and harmony must work even harder.”

The Movement dynamically lives its spirituality of life-in-dialogue through the conceptualization of greater initiatives such as the National Week for Interreligious Dialogue, and the National Congress on Spirituality, in hopes of raising awareness among the entire population of the importance of having a “culture of the encounter and discussion,” a “culture that comes from God and that leads back to God.” D’Ambra comments that the road ahead for “Silsilah” is still long: “we see the fruits, but still have a long way to go and we must always be a sign of hope for the people.” This is what he has been working for his whole life as a missionary priest in the Philippines: to be a sign of hope in the midst of conflict, to reduce tensions, and to be a bridge of peace between Christians and Muslims. D’Ambra’s life and work continue to be very relevant, meaningful, and fruitful as shown in the many people—both Christians and Muslims—who have attended the orientation seminars on the culture of dialogue, path to peace, and the Silsilah Dialogue Institute summer courses. With the Harmony Chain Initiative, a special interfaith initiative of meditation and prayer for dialogue and peace from Mindanao to the world, D’Ambra’s mission of peace and the Movement have gained a foothold around the world as its membership has grown from local to international levels, and regular communication and links are maintained through its monthly newsletters In-Touch and Legame de Pace (in Italian).

D’Ambra’s life-in-dialogue continues and his mission of peace goes on, a mission that has been spread far and wide through the many leaders, youth, children, and poor communities who have benefited from the selfless and committed service of this Italian missionary priest in the Philippines. The sign of hope that the Silsilah Dialogue Movement gives is more needed than ever in the present times, not only in the Philippines but in the whole world.

Publsihed by:

Journal Peace Review | A Journal of Social Justice  Volume 29, 2017 – Issue 1: The Global Refugee Crisis

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