Response to Common Word – the Case of the Philippines
By Fr. Eliseo “Jun” Mercado, OMI
The interreligious gap and misunderstanding in the Southern Philippines has a long history. It dates back from the period of colonialism when the Philippines was annexed by Spain in the 16th century and later by the US at the turn of the 1900.
The encounter with Spanish forces was characterized by continuous war, except for intermittent truces that resulted to alienation and opposition between the Christianized Filipinos and the Islamized Filipinos now known as the “Bangsamoro peoples”.
The period during the American period was also characterized by war, only this time, by decisive military victory that put an end to the once powerful Sultanates in Mindanao and their annexation to the Philippines. This annexation paved the way for the programs of pacification and assimilation which included among others the opening of Mindanao for migration from the Luzon and the Visayas.
These historical facts have given rise to three significant realities that continue to haunt Muslim-Christian relations in the Philippines, even today. To wit:
- The lingering suspicion and lack of trust that continue to characterize the relations between Christians and Muslims;
- The sense of injustice on the part of the Bangsamoro and the Indigenous peoples for their lost ancestral domain. After years of migration, they have found themselves a minority in their traditional homeland. The Muslims are now majority only in five provinces out of the 24 in Mindanao; and
- Poverty and neglect that led to, among others, the highest in mortality, illiteracy rate, lowest in access to basic services, especially health and education.
The above three are few of the causes of the renewed rebellion in the Southern Philippines. The peace process in the Southern Philippines follows the ever changing tide and wind of the government in Manila.
This is the context that has made urgent the interface of Christianity and Islam in the Philippines.
First, there is an urgent need to distance the face of our faith traditions from the stereotypes of rebels/terrorists, on the one hand and oppressors and the army of occupation, on the other.
Christians and Muslims of goodwill, specifically bishops, ulama, priest and lay leaders beginning in early 70’s stood for justice and respect for human rights even during the height of battles between the Philippine regular army and the Moro National liberation Front. The provinces of Cotabato and Sulu – the lands of many battles have witnessed examples of solidarity of people of goodwill from Christianity and Islam who continued to stand for justice and human rights. The first association of Christian-Muslim Religious Leaders in Mindanao began in 1973 few months after the declaration of Martial law. Then following the Peace Agreement in 1976, a more formal national conference involving leaders of Catholics, Protestants and Muslims began to address the problems of the South and to bring these issues to the attention of the National government.
Again, following the 1996 Final Peace between the Philippine Government and the Moro national Liberation, the Bishop-Ulama Forum was formed to support the peace process in the Southern Philippines and the implementation of the said accord.
Both associations contributed, through conferences and consultations, to a formation of yet another ‘thread’ beyond the familiar stereotypes and slogans in southern Philippines. This a partnership, albeit still a minority, that work for peace, reconciliation and partnership in building a more inclusive communities and governance.
The second is interreligious dialogue. Interreligious dialogue has a particular and peculiar history in the Philippines both in the local and national level given the situation of the war in Southern Philippines. Simply to name a few:
- A partnership to stand for justice and defense of human rights;
- A support to the peace process in Southern Philippines that continues from 1976 to the present;
- An attempt of mutual accompaniment in celebrations of festivals like Duyog Ramadhan for the Muslims and Christmas for Christians;
- A pressure on the protagonists of the war to go back to the negotiating table to settle their differences;
- Involvement of the religious from both sides of the divide in Tract II of the peace process in Southern Philippines.
- Adopting Peace Education in schools and institutions of higher learning to imbibe a culture of peace in campuses; and
- Assistance to the victims of war, specifically to the internally displaced.
In a similar vein, the religious both Muslims and Christians (Catholics and Protestants) are active in various consultations and fora that seek to impact policies affecting the Southern Philippines. These attempts to influence official policy formulation range from peacebuilding to the shape of peace agreement that will be acceptable to the major stakeholder in Mindanao.
The urgency for dialogue given the concrete context of the Southern Philippines and the attempts of leaders from both divides have greatly influenced the Philippine government to adopt interreligious dialogue as a priority in seeking a just and sustainable peace in Southern Philippines. This has become an official policy that has marked the Philippines’ strong intervention and support to interreligious dialogue at the international bodies like UN and the Alliance of Civilizations, and of late in the Non Aligned Movement.
New Wind blowing and shaping…
Peacemaking is at the heart of our faith tradition…”Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.” Peacemaking demands for a new relationship – a new solidarity for all peoples across political and ideological boundaries, across cultures and religions.
I wish to echo the late Pope John Paul II’s message in Damascus at the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, 6 May 2001.
“It is my ardent hope that Muslim and Christian religious leaders and teachers will present our two great religious communities as COMMUNITIES IN RESPECTFUL DIALOGUE, NEVER MORE AS COMMUNITIES IN CONFLICT”. It is crucial for the young to be taught the ways of respect and understanding, so that they will not be led to misuse religion itself to promote or justify hatred and violence. Violence destroys the image of the Creator in his creatures, and should never be considered as the fruit of religious conviction.”
“Better mutual understanding will surely lead to a more objective and comprehensive knowledge of each other’s religious beliefs at the practical level, to a new way of presenting our two religions NOT IN OPPOSITION, as it happened too often in the past, BUT IN PARTNERSHIP FOR THE GOOD OF THE HUMAN FAMILY.”
In the same vein, I read the Common Word, with 138 signatories that speak of weight, influence and scholarship. I personally consider the letter something historical with long enduring impact-
In the letter the Koran verse on tolerance is quoted: “Had God willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works. “Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ” (Al-Ma’idah, S. 5:48).
This Letter is a very important step in dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Often Christians have taken the initiative regarding dialogue, and they have so done well. It is important that this first step continues in this direction with increased clarity, even showing differences and the need for correction.
I believe that with time this Letter can create an opening and a greater convergence on the more delicate issues of religious freedom, the absolute value of human rights, the relationship between religion and society, the use of violence, etc.., in short current issues that worry all believers in our world today.