When I first arrived in the Philippines I felt inundated by anti-Muslim prejudices from the majority, Catholic population. They told me that Muslims are nothing but: ‘traitors’, ‘ignorant’, ‘savages’, ‘dirty’, ‘enemies of Filipinos’ etc. When, finally, I got to Marawi (officially the Islamic City of Marawi) on the on the island of Mindanao to visit the Columban priests and their co-workers I was able to glimpse the reality with my own eyes.
After only two weeks into my first immersion in a Muslim community I had a very instructive experience which warned me against making quick judgements about people we don’t fully understand. A typhoon blew in from the sea and carried the roof off the house in which I was living. Some members of the community who were opposed to my interreligious dialogue efforts began spreading rumours that Allah was angry with my host family for housing a Christian priest; and hence the whirlwind. I still remember the desolation I felt when my host family threw me out on the street at dusk, with no means of transport to get out of this remote village. I recall saying to God: “This was all your idea. If you want me to continue this work do something fast. Otherwise I’m giving up!” After about 30 minutes wondering whether I would sleep under a tree or start walking the 20 km to the nearest town, one of the Muslim villagers came up to me and said: “Brother! Come and live with us.” I did and stayed with them for four years! Dialogue work has many frustrations but the typhoon episode constantly reminds me that if it is indeed God’s work God will find a way!
The call to join the Columban work for Muslim-Christian relations captivated my heart and hasn’t let me go after 23 years! The words of Vatican II have been ringing in my ears: “Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The Sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding for the benefit of all. Let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values” [Nostra Aetate # 3].
The seeds of the particular “quarrels and dissensions” and deep-seated prejudices between Christians and Muslims in the Philippines were sown over 400 years ago with the Spanish colonisation of these islands. Magellen arrived in Cebu about 20 years after the Muslims had been expelled from Spain. Spanish intolerance for things Islamic tended to permeate their colonial dealings with the Philippine Muslims whom they misnamed Moros.
At that time, the Spanish Crown had Catholic religious orders simultaneously occupy the role of missionary and civil colonial administrator so, naturally, Filipino Muslims would begin to regard baptised Filipinos as collaborators with the Spanish colonial cause. Furthermore, Catholic Filipinos were often recruited to quell the frequent Muslim insurrections in what were called the Moro Wars.
When the Spanish era finished, the American Colonial Administration adopted a policy of ‘civilising Moro-land’ in the 20th century. On the assumption that Christian Filipinos were somewhat more civilised than their Muslim counterparts, Christians from various parts of the Philippines were encouraged to resettle in the Muslim-dominated areas of Mindanao. This policy was continued by the Philippine Government so that eventually the percentage of Muslims in Mindinao dropped from about 50% in 1918 to 27% in 1990. In the last 50 years these developments have led to a series of armed conflicts between Christians and Muslims as well as protracted wars between Government forces and various Muslim separatist groups.
And there are important different languages: Muslims here in Northern Mindanao almost exclusively speak Meranao while almost all Christians speak Visayan. I am one of the few foreigners who can speak Meranao and this has been invaluable for building up a level of trust and friendship with the Muslims. Living among Muslims, learning their language and culture and sharing their life has always been foundational for the Columban approach to Muslim-Christian dialogue in Mindanao.
In my role as co-coordinator for Muslim-Christian Dialogue in the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro, I act as co-convenor of the Cagayan de Oro Interfaith Forum for Peace, Harmony and Solidarity (IFPHS). This forum is comprised of Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, various Evangelical Churches and Muslim clergy and lay leaders. We arrange regular visits by Catholics, Protestants and Muslims to each other’s places of worship where we help to educate each other regarding our beliefs and religious practices. These take place particularly during Ramadan (the Islamic month of fasting) and at Christmas. Muslim leaders have attended Christmas Midnight Mass and priests and pastors have been invited to address the mosque communities during the nightly breaking of fast (Iftar) during Ramadan. Joint interfaith statements are often issued and read in the churches and mosques in order to promote Christian-Muslim understanding during the special seasons. Parties and sports events for underprivileged children are often organised around these events.
Each year I am involved in organizing a gathering of the Catholic and Protestant bishops and Ulama (Islamic theological leaders) in this part of Mindanao to promote peace, understanding and cooperation. This event usually involves a peace-walk through the city, along with public lectures and workshops in schools, as well as among the police and army to promote tolerance and interfaith respect, and to counter misinformation and misunderstanding.
As well as helping the staff of the local Catholic seminary to train the seminarians in the field of Interreligious Dialogue and Muslim-Christian Relations, I also balance my dialogue efforts by teaching English to five Imams (Islamic liturgical leaders). This has certainly created a deep trust and friendship between us. Class usually begins at 6pm but we break at 7.10 pm so that I can pray my Evening Prayer while they perform their Salah (صلاة) in the same room. It is a wonderful spiritual experience for me to be able to share the same prayer space with devout Muslims deep in prayer while I pray the Evening Prayer of the Church. I could say that this prayerful sharing of sacred space each Wednesday night encapsulates my missionary spirituality.
Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we use prayers like ‘Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth peace to all people of good will’ or ‘Peace I leave you; my peace I give you’ and this strengthens my resolve to continue the work I am doing. In fact, notto strive for peace and reconciliation would be rather sacrilegious. When Christ offers us “my peace” he expects us to do something about it!
My own experience in the Philippines has shown me that a good Muslim is a Muslim who prays regularly, sincerely, humbly and from the heart. Sincere prayerfulness really does transform people. In theory, I always appreciated the importance of a preserving a regular schedule of prayer in my daily life but having lived for so long with the regularity of the Muslim Call to Prayer from the minaret, I have acquired a much greater appreciation of what it means to sanctify the day through observing the ‘Hours’ of the Daily Office. When I spend time in silent contemplation I feel in solidarity –in communion– with my Muslim friends who are at prayer. I deeply sense that we are praying to the One and the Same God and that the God’s transformative grace carries works in all of us.
Most Muslim Filipinos do not entertain fundamentalist beliefs although, through the internet, some young Muslims are being exposed to radical Islamist ideologies. Luckily, our Muslim partners here are very vigilant about preventing fundamentalist Muslims from influencing our activities and relations. I wish that many more of the 120 clergy in our Archdiocese would develop the missionary attitude to reach out to these moderate Muslims and work together for the sake of the whole community for the long term.