Good Morning and greetings of peace and love to all of you. It is an honour and a privilege to be invited to stand here before all of you and speak of my experiences in the field of interfaith dialogue, reconciliation and relationship building.
I first became aware of this field of endeavour in 1998 when I met two representatives from an international peace organization who were visiting Manila. Listening to them share their experiences in the field, I was struck not only by what I heard but also what I saw. One of them was wearing a white T-shirt and on it was printed an image of the globe surrounded by the symbols of the different religions of the world. And that image struck me so much that it made me reflect on the uniqueness of my own Catholic Christian faith in the midst of the diversity of the faiths in the world.
…Three years later, I found myself being engaged in building relationships of mutual respect, understanding and cooperation among people of diverse faith and cultures in metro Manila. My interfaith friends and I were so inspired by the compelling words of Mahatma Ghandi who said, “We must be the change that we wish to see in the world”. So we organised ourselves and established the Peacemakers Circle Foundation committed to promoting peace in the world and healing of the earth through individual and social transformation. We wanted to create safe spaces, a common ground for dialogue where people of different faiths could come together and engage in various forms of dialogue and collaborative action.
Two years later we had gained a measure of success and we realised that to remain relevant to the times we had to get out of our comfort zones and to reach out to people in the grassroots communities … and engage in dialogue with Muslims and Christians.
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic Christian country and although Islam is the second largest faith tradition, the majority of the Muslim population reside in Mindanao, the southern region of the country. Because of poverty and the difficulty of life, and also the conflict that has been raging for decades, many Muslims have fled their southern homelands to seek better lives for themselves and their families elsewhere in the country. Many Muslims have settled in metro Manila. But life in the metropolis has not been easy for them either because they’ve not only had to contend with poverty but also with the attitudes of discrimination and prejudice from their Christian neighbours.
Most of the Christians in metro Manila have not really met Muslims, they have taken it for granted that every person they would meet is Christian and so the only exposure they have of Islam and Muslims are from what they read in the newspapers and television, and they were very negative. So we realised that this was a big problem.
In 2004 I was involved in a process of mediating a conflict between the Muslim Traders Association of a shopping centre in the heart of metro Manila, the Greenhills Shopping Center, and the predominantly Christian neighbourhood association. News of the construction of a mosque inside the shopping centre was announced in a daily newspaper and this gave rise to loud protest from some of the leaders of the Neighbourhood Association. They sent out letters to the owners of the Greenhills Shopping Centre expressing their fears of having the mosque in their neighbourhood. They said that wherever there are mosques, Muslims of various persuasions would come and their area would deteriorate and become an enclave of criminals. The situation was very dire.
Our Peacemakers Circle invited our Muslim friends to our office and appealed to them for sobriety. We were told that their relatives and friends in Mindanao were sending them text messages urging them to jihad should the Christians rally the streets in protest.
This experience reinforced my belief that there is a great need to educate Christians as well as Muslims on each other’s practices and beliefs and to build relationships among them.
Our first community was Barangay 188 in Talaocan City. It had a population of 5000 families, 20% of which are Muslim. … It was a very high crime rate area, considered to be the drug trafficking capital of the city.
There were gun shots heard every day, dead bodies lying by the roadside and the riverside, and the public utility vehicles would not enter because the drivers feared for their lives. [But] we decided that we must continue and persevere. So we gave workshops on community building and team building and values orientation to those who would attend our meetings, Muslims and Christians alike.
We also engaged in various projects like tree planting - that was in 2003 - in 2005 the trees grew and so did our relationships deepen and grow stronger. Because peace building is not just about talking to each other but helping and being engaged in real life concerns, with the Hindu community we helped the Muslim community raise funds to install a water pump by the mosque. We also engaged in medical and dental mission.
One day one of the members of our regular meetings was shot and killed in broad daylight and our members were too afraid to come together again. So we went to visit in their homes … and gave a fear management workshop and helped them to respond to conflict with a training on conflict transformation.
… [W]e went to the community every Friday [to do] ‘inner work’ [with] our Muslim leader… The Muslims say that ‘the greatest battle is within ourselves,’ and ‘the enemy is within us,’ and so we would talk about our fear because fear is really our greatest enemy.
… [I]n 2005 they established the Muslim-Christian Peacemakers Association … and from then on they became actively involved in raising funds together for livelihood projects. The Muslim leaders in the community created a Federation of Muslim Leaders to patrol the area to ensure the safety of the community. And then students from the various colleges and universities would feel safe now to come and give tutorial classes to the children and also engage in interaction with their peers in the community.
Soon we needed to tell the story, we needed some funds to keep going in our work. The Asia Foundation gave us seed money to produce a 30 minute video documentary and we launched it publicly, inviting some leaders of government and various sectors of society and the media… The Department of Social Welfare and Development funded our livelihood program, micro financing of the members of the association and they were able to pay off the loan in 5 months instead of the 12 months they were given. So they became a model community and now they are the proud beneficiary of the next level of loan - instead of only 5,000 they are each individually now receiving 20,000 pesos.
We now decided that we could replicate our work in the barrios of three other communities in metro Manila and with the help of the Australian Embassy program, we were able to design an interfaith workshop preparing Muslims and Christians to engage in dialogue. And we prepared a workshop for Imams and Priests who underwent a series of intra-Imam and intra-Priest workshops before they got together to dialogue with one another and they established a national Imams-Priests Dialogue Forum. Also with the help of US Embassy funding we had a summer program for Muslim Christian Dialogue for Nation Building. It was an intensive program participated in by Muslims and Christians from various sectors of society from Mindanao and metro Manila.
When renewed violence occurred in the wake of the failed signing of the memorandum of agreement on ancestral land between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Government of the Philippines, we in the Peacemakers movement realised that we need to network with other peace organizations in order to promote awareness [of the necessity] to sow peace in Mindanao. With Dr Loreta Castro from the Center for Peace Education and more than 11 other NGOs we are working to promote various forms of dialogue.
Today the Peacemakers Circle is very actively involved in the United Religions Initiative. It is a global community of people of diverse religions, spiritual expression and indigenous traditions who promote enduring daily interfaith cooperation to combat religiously motivated violence and create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the earth and all living beings.
Finally I would like to say that in the Peacemakers Circle we believe in conversion - that is conversion of the heart that enables us to go beyond tolerance and actually see the goodness that is in the heart of people and to appreciate our differences and also to collaborate with one another to create cultures of peace and healing for the earth and all living beings. Thank you very much
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