Antonio J. Ledesma

In the Philippines, we have a Muslim minority living together with a Christian majority. One Indonesian bishop explained his country’s situation to me in this way: “The manner in which you majority Christians deal with the minority Muslims in the Philippines will be the way the majority Muslims will deal with us minority Christians in Indonesia.” It is in this light that we can consider all of Southeast Asia as a truly diverse region, where dialogue among religious traditions is perhaps the only viable and lasting way to protect the rights of religious minorities and to bring about genuine peace and development. Let me then share our own experience of a dialogue forum among bishops and ulama in the Philippines. Ulama is the term (plural of aleem) for religious scholars (the equivalent of theologians) among the Muslims. Since Muslims do not have a hierarchy like that of the Catholic Church, the ulama are the closest counterparts we can find for bishops in terms of moral authority over their respective religious communities.

 

Beginnings

The Bishops-Ulama Forum, formed in November 1996, brings together religious leaders of Muslim and Christian communities from all over Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines. It includes members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, members of the Ulama League of the Philippines and bishops of the National Council of Churches of the Philippines.

The conveners of the forum, representing the three religious groupings, are: Mahid Mutilan, president of the U.L.P. and now vice governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao; Archbishop Fernando Capalla, past chairman of the bishops conference’s Episcopal Commission on Interreligious Dialogue; and Bishop Hilario Gomez Jr., of the N.C.C.P.

From its inception, the B.U.F. has focused on the spiritual bases for peace from both Muslim and Christian religious traditions, grounded in the belief in one God, a common origin and a common destiny for all. Even as the government and warring groups pursue a “genuine, comprehensive and lasting peace” through political treaties and socio-economic development, the bishops and ulama focus on “the missing component in many failed peace efforts—an affirmation of the convergent spiritual and cultural bases for peace.”

Dialogue Meetings

Over the past five-and-a-half years, the B.U.F. has held 19 dialogue meetings on a quarterly basis in various cities in Mindanao. These intercultural and interreligious dialogues have been carried out in an atmosphere of openness, mutual respect and growing familiarity among participants and their representatives. Normally the dialogues bring together 40 to 60 participants representing the three religious bodies. Between the larger meetings, a tripartite commission composed of three to four members from each of the religious bodies meets to prepare the agenda for future gatherings.

At one time or another, the dialogue meetings have touched on two general areas. The first area covers the spiritual dimensions of dialogue, such as the bases for peace from the Bible and the Quran, the special place of Mary and Maryam in both scriptural accounts and the goals of conflict transformation.

The second area covers current concerns arising from the ongoing peace process. These include various crisis points—such as the kidnaping of Msgr. Desmond Hartford, M.SS.CC., in 1997; Luciano Benedetti, P.I.M.E., in 1998; and Giuseppe Pierantoni, S.C.J., from October 2001 to April 2002. In addition, there were also the killings of Bishop Ben de Jesus, O.M.I., in front of his cathedral in Jolo in February 1997; Rhoel Gallardo, C.M.F., in Basilan in May 2000; Benjamin Inocencio, O.M.I., in Sulu in December 2000; and Rufus Halley, M.SS.CC., in Lanao del Sur in August 2001.

War and the Peace Process

Going beyond individual incidents, there were major events affecting the peace process, in particular, the declaration of all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front by President Joseph Estrada in March-July 2000. These resulted in major dislocations of predominantly Muslim communities in central Mindanao. The atmosphere for peace talks was further clouded during the same period by the notorious kidnaping of foreign and local persons by the Abu Sayyaf, an extremist bandit group operating mostly on the chain of islands stretching from Basilan to Tawi-Tawi in the southernmost part of the Philippines. Up to the present, elements of the Abu Sayyaf are still being pursued by the military, after they killed two of their last three hostages, an American Christian missionary and a Filipina nurse.

It is perhaps during periods of open conflict and violence that the Bishops-Ulama Forum has played its key role by providing a neutral forum where joint statements against violence have had a moderating effect. The B.U.F. has also stressed that the conflict cannot be viewed as a religious war, that acts of extremist groups like the Abu Sayyaf are “un-Islamic” and that both Muslim and Christian communities can help bring about a culture of peace.

Peace Advocates

Since 1998 the Bishops-Ulama Forum has sponsored a yearly Mindanao Week of Peace, which starts on the last Thursday of November and ends on the first Wednesday of December. For Christians, this period includes the first Sunday of Advent, a special time of prayer. For Muslims, this may also coincide with the holy season of Ramadan. The week of peace has been able to generate widespread support among the youth, Christians and Muslims alike, as well as various sectors in different communities throughout Mindanao. It has confirmed the conviction that the vast majority of Mindanaoans are for peace.

In addition to the Mindanao-wide dialogues, bishops and ulama have also engaged in subregional interfaith meetings in the cities of Zamboanga, Cotabato, Davao, Marawi, Pagadian and elsewhere. In these localized gatherings, religious leaders—including pastors, priests and imams, as well as leaders of the indigenous communities—are able to address local issues more readily.

Recognizing the value of interreligious dialogue and the crucial role of religious leaders in situations of conflict, the Philippine government has provided logistical support to the B.U.F. through the office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. The B.U.F. also receives support from other donor groups and from various sectors, including the academe and media. In this way the B.U.F. works together with many other peace centers and peace advocates in Mindanao.

Prospects

Despite the ups and downs of a protracted peace process, the Bishops-Ulama Forum has been able to send a steadfast message to all, whether peace doves or war hawks, that the higher Christian and Muslim leaders of Mindanao are for justice and peace.

Gradually, wider circles of dialogue at the lower levels are being formed among parish priests, imams and pastors. Workshops on the culture of peace have also been conducted among grass-roots communities. Lately, the B.U.F. is planning to set up a media desk to provide a wider exposure of its statements and activities to the general public.

Several bishops and ulama have been active in monitoring cease-fire agreements and promoting the peace process in their own localities. There are also suggestions for B.U.F. participants to be more proactively involved in development efforts, principally by facilitating consultations among local communities.

From a global perspective, the series of dialogues and joint activities among Muslim ulama and Christian bishops in Mindanao may be unprecedented anywhere else in the world. This ongoing experience affirms that instead of being sources of conflict, authentic religious traditions can be harnessed as solid foundations for peace.

Interreligious Dialogue in Asia

The B.U.F. dialogue experience among religious leaders of Mindanao was shared at the Sixth Assembly of the Asian Conference on Religion and Peace in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on June 24-28, 2002. In one sense, A.C.R.P. VI replicated the B.U.F. experience on a wider scale. With its theme of “Asia, the Reconciler,” the Yogyakarta conference brought together 300 participants from 20 countries, representing all the principal religions of Asia: Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, Sikh, Tao, Zoroastrian and others.

Since its inception in 1976, A.C.R.P. has had five assemblies at five-year intervals in Singapore, New Delhi, Seoul, Kathmandu and Ayuthaya. The original schedule for A.C.R.P. VI was postponed because of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, adding a new dimension of urgency and realism to the discussions on peace.

In the Yogyakarta Declaration issued on the final day of the conference, the delegates stressed that “the people of religion should stand on the side of the poor, the oppressed and the deprived.” They condemned the vicious cycle that manifests itself in Asia “in the form of discrimination, disparity, deprivation and violence.”

Noting that “Asia is the cradle of all great religions of the world,” the delegates critically focused on Asian spirituality, which on the one hand may have led into “transcendental indifference and escapism from the ground reality of Asia,” thus preserving the status quo. On the other hand, this Asian spirituality, note the delegates, “has to be channeled into saving and serving action and the test of its genuineness is to be found in its renewing power of humanization.”

The overall theme, “Asia, the Reconciler” was further discussed by the five commissions, relating reconciliation to five subthemes: (1) peaceful common living (disarmament and security), (2) just and sustainable development (economy and ecology), (3) life-respecting community (human dignity and human rights), (4) a harmonious family (women, children and partnership) and (5) a culture of peace (education and service for peace).

Among the recommendations included in the A.C.R.P. VI statement were: to establish a center for comparative study of religions and cultures of Asia, youth exchange programs, research on issues affecting women and children as well as ethnic minorities and to offer A.C.R.P. itself as an instrument of reconciliation in current flash points in Asia, such as the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, terrorist and ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka and Nepal, and the north-south division of Korea.

In the midst of wars and internal conflicts in Asia, both the Bishops-Ulama Forum and the Asian Conference on Religion and Peace offer viable alternatives by providing interreligious platforms for peace and development.

The Most Rev. Antonio J. Ledesma, S.J., is Prelate of Ipil, Philippines, and chairman of the Episcopal Commission on Interreligious Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.