Living with Muslims in Mindanao can help to break down centuries of Muslim-Christian enmity.
It is 3:30am: time to get up and prepare our breakfast before the sun rises at 4:15. Once we hear the Call to Prayer from the local mosques, we know we won’t be able to eat a single bite or let a drop of water pass our lips until the sun sets and we have heard the welcome sound of the evening call, ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Great), once again from the mosques. This will remind us that it is time to break our fast after a long, hot day of hunger and, worse still, thirst.
This is our daily routine for the 30 days of the Holy Month of Ramadan, not only here in Mindanao, but throughout the whole Muslim world. As I sit, at the end of another hot day, I wait expectantly for the bilal at the mosque to cry out: ‘Allahu Akbar,’ a reminder that it is now all right to relieve our parched throats with a cup of cold water. It is then I often ask myself what I, an Irish Catholic priest, am doing living with Filipino Muslims and sharing with them the hardships and joys of the Ramadan fast.
I have found living with a Muslim family to be an effective in breaking down the barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding that have long divided so many Muslim and Christian communities here in Mindanao. This tradition -as practised before me by Columbans such as the late Fr Rufus Halley, the late Msgr. Desmond Hartford and Fr Terry Twohig – of leaving the comfort of the parish house to live with Muslim families in Muslim communities was inspired by the late Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud, the first bishop of the Prelature of Marawi. Bishop Tudtud, in the face of persistent misunderstandings, violence and bloodshed between Christians and Muslims back in the 1970s, sensed that the Catholic Church must do more to be a credible witness to the peace of Jesus Christ in this war-torn situation. In response to this concern of Bishop Tudtud, Pope Paul VI appointed Bishop Tudtud to Lanao de Sur, which is 95 percent Muslim. The bishop said he wanted to ‘offer a hand of friendship’ to his Muslim neighbours and so become a ‘reconciling presence’ between the two communities.
As the old saying points out, ‘prejudice is the fruit of ignorance’. Bishop Tudtud had the insight to see that for us Christians to overcome our fear, distrust and hatred of Muslims, we must experience first-hand how Muslims live their lives and practice their Islamic faith, living with them and sharing important moments of their lives, such as the annual Ramadan fast. That is why I find myself here, today, living in this Muslim household.
500 Years of Misunderstanding
The deep animosity so common between Christians and Muslims here in the Philippines was first sown by Spanish colonizers, whose hatred of all things Islamic stemmed from their 800-year struggle to expel the Moros (Moors) of Africa from their own shores. When the Spaniards arrived in the Philippine islands, Spanish officials mistakenly took the indigenous Muslim tribes to be Moors and embarked upon a hostile policy of undermining the strong Islamic influences they encountered here. These Spaniards tended to view Islam as the enemy of the Church. Thus the seeds of mistrust and animosity between Muslims and Christians were imported and sown over 500 years ago. Once engrained, as one would expect, they are not easily uprooted.
This mistrust between the two faiths is so often and so easily manipulated for the personal gain of the corrupt and powerful few. It is now generally accepted that the bitter Muslim-Christian conflict of the 1970s and ’80s was deliberately orchestrated by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies. They armed Christian civilians on the one hand and Muslim civilians on the other, creating a sufficient climate of suspicion so that conflict would be inevitable. This gave President Marcos the ‘state of emergency’ he needed to declare Martial Law. The bombings of public places are not always the work of Islamic extremists. Often, they are the work of rogue elements within the military who orchestrate such events to keep Mindanao in a state of war; a war from which some continue to gain financially.
Breaking down Barriers
One of my jobs is to help train theology students in the local seminary in the field of Interreligious Dialogue and Muslim-Christian Relations, I also teach English to five imams (Islamic prayer 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 Catholics 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, not to strive for peace and reconciliation would be rather sacrilegious. When Christ offers us “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.
I regularly go to schools, churches and local communities in areas with a Christian majority and share my experiences of living in Muslim communities. Normally, I invite Muslim friends of mine -usually an aleem (Islamic theologian) or other religious leader- to share his or her faith with the Christian audiences, who are then invited to ask questions about the Islamic faith and cultural traditions of Filipino Muslims. These are great opportunities for people to learn about the Islamic faith and replace their negative biases and preconceptions of Muslims with correct information about their religion and cultural practices. It gives me great satisfaction to be part of a program that turns ignorance into understanding and prejudice into acceptance and tolerance. These are the very virtues Jesus so passionately preached and practiced here on earth.
Seeing God in the ‘Other’
Living among my Muslim friends is a continual reminder why God called me to be a missionary. Our missionary vocation is an invitation from God to be part of an exciting adventure, discovering the presence of God, not just in the Church and in the Bible, but also in the most unlikely people in the most unlikely places. For me, this missionary call has brought me to live among people with a language, faith and way of life so different from my native Ireland. I find the sheer dedication and commitment shown by many of my friends during the Ramadan fast awe-inspiring. I am reminded of the all-embracing presence of God during the morning Call to Prayer, followed by the sound of running water as the faithful wash their hands, feet and face in preparation for dawn prayers at the mosque.
I am forever grateful to God for inviting me to be a missionary and for giving me the privilege to experience the Holy Spirit at work among so many diverse peoples and places in ways I never dreamt possible.
Paul Glynn SSC