Kindly allow me to be personal in my intervention. I shall present highlights of my experience in Christian –Muslim dialogue for peace in the past 50 years. I shall cover four levels of dialogue, namely:
• a dialogue of life,
• a dialog of religious experiences,
• a dialogue of theological exchange,
• and a dialogue of political action.
A. Knowing the Other - Dialogue of Life
I believe that the first requirement for a Muslim-Christian dialogue for peace is “knowing the other.” How I did this was a rather long process.
I was ordained in 1964 as a missionary religious priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. My religious superiors immediately assigned me to teach Catholic Theology and Moral Philosophy at Notre Dame College, Cotabato City, Philippines.
The College which later became Notre Dame University is located in the Muslim province of Maguindanao. The College had a very good number of Muslim students, young men and women. The College provided a special time for them during Holy Ramadan. Muslim students had their own Islamic studies with their own Muslim teachers.
In a harmonious dialogue of ordinary university life, Christian and Muslim students studied together, worked and played together, and sometimes fell in love with one another. Two of my Muslim students married Christian girls. One of the Muslim faculty members also married a Christian teacher.
Christian students were a great majority in the student population. But Muslim student leaders were quite influential. Two Muslim students were elected in different years as President of the Supreme Student Council.
There were many Muslim students in my classes. I taught them Moral Philosophy or Ethics based on the Natural Law. I became for them not only a teacher, but also an adviser, and conversation partner. During class breaks I would sit with them under the trees to converse with them about whatever woud interest their inquisitive minds.
Gradually I learned from them how members of the Bangsamoro (“Moro nation,” as they like to call themselves today) thought, what their cultural and religious practices, customs and traditions were, what they valued as precious in their lives, what dreams they held for their future.
After 12 years of teachng and doing administration work in the University, I had progressed significantly in seeing and understanding social, political and religious realities from their viewpoint and not merely from my viewpoint as a Christian.
I learned the historic sources of religious and social biases and prejudices, going back to the Spanish attempts to subjugate Muslims from the 16th century onwards. I learned of the successful resistance of Muslims against every effort by the Spaniards to colonize them.
In the early 1970’s the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) started a political revolution against the government for an independent state. In the Cotabato area some of the leaders were former students at Notre Dame University. The MNLF revolution clarified for me the deep-seated desire of Muslims for self-determination and the historic injustices perpetrated against the Moro peoples in a land they once held and ruled more than 100 years before the Spanish conquistadores arrived.
Such fundamental understanding of Moro Muslim culture and history was certainly a foundation for further dialogue.
B. A Dialogue of Religious Experiences
A further stage in my experience of dialogue for peace is the sharing of religious experiences.
At Notre Dame University Christian and Muslim students would come together at least twice a year for spiritual value formation. It is at this time when together they see the influence of their respective faiths on their lives. How does a Muslim obtain spiritual nourishment from their prayer, from their reading of the Qur’an? What is the meaning of Ramadan? Of Jihad? Of almsgiving?
The Muslim students likewise learned about the inflence of the Christian faith on the lives of Chistian students, their belief of Jesus as Lord and Savior, their prayer and religious customs.
I would participate as a facilitator in these religious experiences and could not ignore the request of the students to share my own experiences as a Catholic priest.
As a Bishop in the 1980s, the sharing of religious experiences reached a higher level with the organization of the Bishops Ulama Conference (BUC), a gathering of Muslim ulama, Catholic Bishops and Protestant leaders in Mindanao, Southern Philippines.
At the beginning there was a clear social and psychological distance between us. The distance gradually disappeared especially because of the sharing of religious experiences.
We visited each others’ places of worship and learned from one another the values of prayer and why we are “people of the Book.”
Out of such sharing gradually came respect for each other’s religious beliefs, trust in one another, as well as friendships. Biases and prejudices, fundamental differences in culture and religious beliefs remained. But we realized that we were not enemies. We traced our roots to a common Abrahamic faith. We were common pilgrims towards the Kingdom of Heaven. We had common hopes for salvation in the end-time.
C. Dialogue of Theological Exchange
A further evolution in my experience of dialogue for peace was theological dialogue . The Muslim members of the BUC were religious scholars, some of whom were educated in great Islamic theological centers in the Middle East and in South Asia. The Catholic Bishops and Protestant leaders had similar theological scholarship.
I remember two issues on which fruitful theological exchange took place.
The first was our respective beliefs about Mary, Miryam. An Ustadz was assigned to present Miryam in the Qur’an. I was requested to present Mary in the Holy Bible. Many of the Christian leaders were astounded to learn that Miryam is mentioned more frequently in the Qur’an than in the Holy Bible, that in fact Miryam has a section to herself in the Qur’an, and that the Qur’an has an explicit recognition of the Virgin Birth. In the Holy Bible, one can consider Mary as the “Woman of Silence,” pondering everthing that was said about her Savior-Son in her heart and silently rejoicing or suffering with Jesus her Son.
Miryam, we realized, is a convergent point for Muslims and Christians for peace and harmony.
Another important issue was on care of the environment in the light of global warming and climate change. Another Ustadz was assigned to speak about Creation in the Qur’an. I was again asked to speak on the same topic as presented in the Holy Bible.
As in the case of Miryam, there are many points of convergence in Christian and Islamic beliefs in God creating the whole universe, in the human responsibility to care for creation.
There is no doubt that on the basis of doctrine and the Word of God Muslims and Christian will collaborate in caring for the integrity of Creation in order to arrest global warming. Still we realize that the idol of money is often the option rather than God’s will.
D. Dialogue of Political Action.
One of the major objectives of the BUC is to inject the dimension of faith into the search for peace in Mindanao. What do the Muslim and Christian faiths say about peace? About how faith can guide the peace process?
The BUC was able to introduce yearly celebration of a Mindanao Week of Peace at the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the Catholic Advent Season. It was supported by a decree of the country’s president. It is now celebrated by all religious institutions and by many local governments in Mindanao. It is raising the consciousness of ordinary people for the need of collaboration by all sectors of society in the work for a just and lasting peace.
Originally the Moro National Liberation Front stuggled for a State independent from Philippine sovereignty. The peace agreement signed by the MNLF and the government in 1996 opted for autonomy within the Republic instead of independence. A major split took place in the Bangsamoro revolutionary front. The breakaway group took the name Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and continued the armed struggle. To establish a just and lasting peace, the MILF later decided for self-determination undeer Philipine sovereignty and in the territory covered by the present Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Peace negotiations between the government and the MILF have been going on for the past 17 years, with off and on resumption of armed conflict.
My own personal contribution to the government-MILF peace process is discreetly away from the public arena and more behind the curtains. I had written an article which described the roots of conflict as three-fold: injustice to Moro identity, injustice to Moro sovereignty, and injustice to Moro integral development. It was a seminal work that seemed to have had an influence on Muslim and government peace panels and peace advocates.
When requested for prayers and advice by peace negotiators and peace advocates I am ore than delighted to respond positively.
The result of such dialogue for peace is the organization of an informal peace group that we call “Friends of Peace” (FOP). I am the main convenor for this NGO composed of many Muslim and Christian leaders as well as leaders of Indigenous Peoles. They are key religious leaders, members of academe, professional lawyers and expert constitutionalists, leaders of civil society.
In dialogue with one another we monitor the peace process, identify points where our active advocacy is required, discreetly accompany the drafters of a proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), lobby with key legislators into approving the peace agreement when the President presents it to Congress for approval.
Some of the members of FOP were in the Bangsamoro Transition Commission that drafted the proposed BBL.
The proposed BBL is now in the hands of the President of the Philippines. The approval of the BBL promises to cut the ground off the emerging radicalism of Bangsamoro youth. Disillusioned by government inaction on the peace agreement, they are being recruited by the ISIS-aligned Maute group that had tried to seize control of Marawi City as a possible center for a Caliphate.
Should a just and lasting peace result from the peace process, our work as FOP remains. Our long term goal is the reduction of biases and prejudices mutually held by Muslims and Christians. Such biases are potential flashpoints of violent conflict. We believe that informal and formal education in the family, and through the school system is necessary.
Also imperative is intra-faith dialogue for peace initiated by religious leaders so that their respective constituencies would become aware of their biases and prejudices in the light of their respective faiths and make those biases and prejudices absolutely inoperational.
E. Concluding Remarks – Required Qualities of Mind and Heart
In my experience, the following are required for a fruitful dialogue for peace. Most may not be there from the very beginning of dialogue. They only develop in the process of dialogue.
- Knowledge of the other;
- Firm conviction in one’s religious faith;
- Respect for the Other’s faith;
- Understanding of fundamental differences;
- Transparency, Integrity and Sincerity;
- Openness to listen;
- Trust in the Other;
- Appreciation of Persons rather than of ideas;
- Hope, Patience and Perseverance;
It is often said that to dialogue is to step unto sacred ground. One has to take off one’s shoes. Ultimately the sacred space is a space of love for the Other, infused by God, despite fundamental differences. It is a dialogue of faith. Therefore, prayer is important in the dialogue for peace.
Having forgotten the exact words of the famous philosoper of dialogue, Martin Buber, I do recall the content of his words. He once said: When two people engage in a dialogue that is truly human and authentic, the electricity that binds them together is God.
Buber also said, while love is not identical with dialogue, if there is no love for the other but only love that is for one self, its name is Lucifer.
In the light of the above qualities of mind and heart, I realize how the “Common Word” of love of God and love of neighbor is so fundamental in the dialogue for peace.