When I lived in Pakistan, I was among the merely 3 percent population of Christians in a predominantly Muslim country of almost 200 million people. In Pakistan many Muslims have hardly even met a Christian and certainly do not know anything about the Christian faith. Nor are most of them even interested, because for them, it is not their major concern, nor does the Christian faith impinge on their daily lives. Prejudice among Muslims towards Christians and vice versa is common because of the lack of willingness or even interest to engage with each other.
People in the Philippines, where I grew up, are inclined to have this same attitude. The predominant religion in my own country is Catholicism. Common perceptions of Muslims are based on preconceived notions of them that are handed down from one generation to the next. Most of these preconceptions are quite offensive and false notions about their culture and their religion. When I was young I used to see Muslims in the market-place, selling things. I did not interact with them. I just listened to the offensive comments that were usually used to describe them. At the same time, I also learned early on in school that they pray five times a day. I could not reconcile these two opposing views of Muslims then.
Before leaving for Pakistan, I was fortunate enough to get to know some Meranao Muslims here in Mindanao. Most Christians only know them as ‘Muslims’ but don’t bother to learn their language or take interest in their unique culture. However, I was fortunate enough to be able to live for a while with Asnawi Mangka and his family and parents in Sultan Naga Dimaporo, Lanao del Norte. This was my first experience living with Muslims. I remember my apprehensions at first. I grew up with the usual Christian perceptions of them as being aggressive, hostile and not to be trusted.
These preconceptions were very far from what I experienced when I finally got to live with them. I joined them in planting crops on their farm, exploring their place, and I was able to join them when they prayed in the mosque. I ate with them and during meals Asnawi asked that we take turns to pray before meals out of respect for each others’ religion. It was a powerful gesture from Asnawi to allow me to pray with them in my own Christian way. I felt I was in a space of freedom and I was accepted for what I am. I also admire Asnawi’s family and neighbours for their hospitality and their willingness to befriend a complete stranger like me. It was not easy at first, but our willingness to engage with each other and my ability to ask questions helped me to overcome some of the long-held prejudices I had. It was very liberating on my part.
It is the same attitude and openness that allowed me to overcome my anxieties when I was in Pakistan. I started exploring the alley-ways in the place where I was assigned. I talked to strangers and gave myself time to familiarise myself with the people by joining them for meals during special occasions, or just spending time in long conversations over a cup of tea. Some of them became like brothers to me. Although I was constantly bombarded by accounts of negative experiences of Muslims from many Christians, my prior memories of the time spent with Asnawi and his family enabled me to realize that one’s religion should not be confused one’s with individual behaviour and cultural practices – which is what tends to happen in Pakistan. It was hard to go against the ghetto mentality that exists among the Christian minority in Pakistan. However, I drew inspiration from the Meranao Muslims that I lived with in Mindanao. Asnawi and his family not only opened their home; they opened their lives and hearts with the warmth of their welcome.
Now I’m back again in the Philippines. That experience with Asnawi and his family has contributed to my being able to somehow understand how it is to live as a minority in a country where the majority confuse culture with religion. Recently I joined an event called: “Duyog Ramadan”, where Christians join Muslims in the daily breaking of the Ramadan fast (iftar). It was very encouraging to see many Christians joining this event in a symbolic gesture of solidarity. Among those who joined were students. It is very important that we give importance to a celebration that matters to our Muslim neighbours, no matter how small a minority they are in the overall population of the Philippines. I am hopeful that by constant openness to engage with people from other faiths, the current indifference and mistrust will diminish and that we will begin to see more objectively that, though we are different, in our innermost being we are very similar. Whether one belongs to the minority or the majority does not matter. What is most needed is our constant openness to engage with people from other faiths, to find the good in them and to appreciate our difference, rather than to let it divide us. I am optimistic as I continue on a journey to move farther outside my own ghetto, to a space of freedom from prejudice; because I see a great need for this at a time where sectarian violence is so common and where the tendency to condemn others out of ignorance is so pervasive.
Louie Ybanez is currently studying theology in Ateneo de Manila in preparation to becoming a Columban Missionary Priest. Louie comes from Agusan, Cagayan de Oro City, Mindanao, Philippines.