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SILSILAH DIALOGUE MOVEMENT: HOW TO BUILD INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE BETWEEN ISLAM AND CHRISTIANITY AT GRASS ROOTS LEVELS IN THE PHILIPPINES

By: Fr. Sebastiano D’Ambra, PIME

 

  • INTRODUCTION

             Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share what is dear to me because it is part of my experience, my passion and mission.

             I ‘d like to start saying that Thailand was my first assigned mission, but the Lord has His own way to guide us and so, I landed in the Philippines for the simple reason that at that time there was an internal struggle in that country and they didn’t give visa to foreign missionaries.

             Meanwhile this year I celebrate my 50th anniversary of priesthood. I remember that I started my study of theology in Italy 1961 and I ended it on 1966. For this reason sometimes I say that I started my study before Vatican II and I ended after Vatican II Council. The impact of this event in the Church and in my life is great in many ways. For me it was a special event which opened many doors. One of this was the new perspective of the Church on the mission of interreligious dialogue as “an integral part of the mission of the Church”.

             This new dimension of the mission was considered after Vatican II “Vie nuove” (the new ways) of the mission. With other two PIME missionaries I asked to go to a mission where we could apply the spirit of the “vie nuove” of the mission.

             After years of service in Italy, my superior answered our desire to start a new mission with this clear focus on the “vie nuove” and allowed us to go to Thailand to start a mission of dialogue with Buddhists. Unfortunately, for the reasons mentioned above and the difficulty to have a visa to enter Thailand, my superior proposed we go to the Philippines and this has been my mission from 1977 up to now.

             We accepted to go to Mindanao and our first mission was Siocon in the province of Zamboanga del Norte. The Philippines is still a Catholic country in Asia with a percentage of 80 to 85% Catholics, but in some areas in Mindanao the percentage is different. In some areas, the Muslims are the majority group. In Siocon, my first mission,  the presence of Muslims at that time was 40% with 10% of indigenous people (Subanons) and the others were Catholics with a small group of other Christian denominations.

  • THE EXPERIENCE OF “DIALOGUE STARTS FROM GOD AND BRINGS PEOPLE BACK TO GOD”

             I am grateful that the focus of my topic is the grass roots in the context of interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Christians in the Philippines because this was, for me, the starting point of my mission in Siocon. It was not a “planned choice” but a sign of the times that brought me to immerse myself in this reality that the Lord opened to me in order to start, after few years, the Silsilah Dialogue Movement.

             In the beginning of the mission I was touched by the situation of conflict between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the military forces of the government. The Moro conflict is part of the Muslims’ claim of Mindanao. Islam officially entered in the Southern part of the archipelago in 1380. Christianity came in with the Spanish colonization in 1521. From that time on the relation between the people of the two different religious groups have been often tense considering that Christianity has been identified with the Spanish colonizers of the archipelago called by the same colonizers as the “Philippines.”

             In the sixties and more openly in the seventies, the conflict in Mindanao started. It was partially inspired by international movements of Islamic countries like Egypt and the revival of Islam with an ideological agenda which is the aspiration of “self-determination” of the Muslims in Mindanao. This new reality of violence is also used by geo-political strategies with different implications on the peace and order in the world. This makes the aspiration of peace more difficult and requires a long effort where grass roots have to be involved because they are the majority in society.  We need to help them in a process of education that goes beyond the help often given to answer to their immediate needs.

             President Ferdinand Marcos used also this division and the conflict of MNLF in Mindanao as one of the reasons to declare martial Law in the country. That was a new beginning of conflict that, passing from different stages, is still visible up to now. Today new ideologies linked to radical Islam have created a more difficult situation and the prejudices among Christians and Muslims often develop in mistrust and hatred.

             In the first stage of my mission in Siocon I was touched by the presence of thousands of refugees in some areas of the mission. Most of them were Muslims. They welcomed me in their places and I started to know the many stories of suffering that have forced them to leave their lands and houses in conflict areas of the mission of Siocon. I listened to them with the heart crying inside and asking myself: “Why? And what can I do?” That was the  beginning of my Muslim- Christian dialogue in the mission.

             For the first two years I gave more time to the Christian communities in rural areas. This was also the time to become more familiar with the local languages and the culture of the different groups of people and to understand the dynamics of the conflict. I learned also from the Subanons, the indigenous people of my mission, other sad stories – how they have been oppressed and abused by the Christians and the Muslims. For this reason I decided to gather them and I started for the Subanons my first organization   called “Mosulabuk Ita”, that means “let’s be united”.

             The pressure of the conflict after one year urged me to give more time to the Muslim groups and I started to be close to a Muslim group in the port area of Siocon and there I formed among the Muslims the “Muslim-Christian Brotherhood Center”, a new program to become a sign of dialogue in that area. The place was often disturbed by the abuses of the military and I often had to intervene to protect the people. This was the first attempt  to organize an activity for the Muslim grass roots of my mission of Siocon. One of the activities there was to start a kindergarten for the children. That was a way to be in contact also with their parents and with the people. I was happy about the experience, but the Lord called me to another step. The occasion came when a local Muslim leader offered me the possibility to live on his land, on the other side of the river, in a village near the sea. There I was a priest without a church and a poor among the poor and the only Christian among the Muslims.   It was not easy to start but I was loved and respected by the people and I was able to overcome all the difficulties. I learned from my neighbour how to prepare my simple food and to share with them what I had. It was indeed a good training for me and a deep spiritual experience.

             That experience helped me to deepen the meaning of dialogue as spirituality and I was guided by the realization and reflection that “Dialogue starts from God and brings people back to God”. This became the basic point of the spirituality that has guided us in the Silsilah Dialogue Movement up to now. It was a kind of spiritual conversion and light for me that opened the door to interreligious dialogue with Muslims.

             Guided by this new spirit I accepted the offer of the MNLF rebels to become their negotiator in my mission to bring harmony and peace in our place. Living with the rebels on many occasions and many weeks in the forest for two years, I learned a lot about their struggle and their determination. Personally I believe that violence is not the way to solve problems, but I respected their choice and, in the process, I learned many things. I share here only two insights coming from my experiences of living with the rebels:

             The determination of the young rebels and their sacrifices in living that kind of life helped me to reflect and often I share this experience with others saying that when we believe in something on a deeper level we are called to make sacrifices.   This is true for all of us. Many times this “example of the rebels” has urged me to deepen the teaching of Jesus and to do more and more in my mission of dialogue and peace, accepting the sacrifices of my mission and remaining with the people as a sign of hope, even in the midst of violence. The second insight is part of a personal experience. When I was with the rebels in the forest as negotiator, one time we were about to be attacked by the military   who initially promised me not to attack to allow the group to surrender according to our agreements. On that occasion the commander, well known as Commander Magellan, was in a dilemma to answer to the provocation of the military. Initially he proposed to me to escape from a certain place, but I decided to stay with them. Touched by this decision, the commander said to me: “Ok Father, remain and if we are attacked we defend you. You will be the last to die”. He was sincere, ready to die for me…and I recalled what Jesus said: “There is no a greater love that the one who gives his life for a friend.” Often I recall that experience telling to myself and to others: “Indeed, there is a corner of goodness in the heart of each person, even in the heart of a rebel, like Commander Magellan who saved my life”. This has been always an inspiration to discover the corner of goodness in each person in all cultures and religions.

  • THE JOURNEY OF THE SILSILAH DIALOGUE MOVEMENT

             We are called to allow the Spirit to touch our heart and to transform society. Interreligious dialogue has to bring us where we are needed and share our love to all, even if, on some occasions, we cannot do so much and even when there is no return to our love from the other part.

Unfortunately, my adventure with the rebels ended with an ambush of the military who planned to kill me. In that ambush one of my leaders near me was killed. I was spared by the Lord, but after that incident I was forced to leave the country for security reasons. Going back to Italy, I felt like an exile in my own country. But that was also providential because I spent two intensive years studying Arabic and Islam in Rome (in PISAI) and I prepared myself for the future, dreaming to go back to the Philippines and restarting my dialogue with the Muslims.

             The occasion came when I was called back as a superior of the PIME missionaries in the Philippines. There I found the opportunity to share my experiences of dialogue in Siocon. I started in 1984, with other Muslim and Christian friends, the Silsilah Dialogue Movement in Zamboanga City, Mindanao.

             The new beginning was full of surprises. I found acceptance and rejection on the part of the Christians and of the Muslims, especially because I proposed a Movement with a spiritual foundation open to a sustainable dialogue and peace. We were still under Martial law and many Movements at that time were infiltrated by communist ideologies with “activist spirit.” Guided by my first experience to be with the grass roots people, soon I identified a poor Muslim community of squatters near the sea and near the PIME residence in Zamboanga City, where I started my personal immersion with the hope to bring also the new Silsilah members to the grass roots as   part of the dialogue mission.  That decision was providential for me and for the Movement because since the beginning I gave a clear sign to the new members of the Movement that we are called to remain in contact with the grass roots. They are our teachers in many ways and they are those who can understand and, most of the time, practice dialogue with their lives.

             After one year of presence in that squatter area the place got burned and we started there a concrete mission of dialogue in solidarity with the victims of that fire. In that squatter area the majority were Muslims.

             I still remember that the members of Silsilah, including some ladies who belonged to rich families and a good number of leaders and professionals, joined me to help the victims of the fire. I was touched to see many of the Silsilah members there helping in many ways, to help and rebuild their houses.

             In spite of difficulties at the beginning of Silsilah we have been able to have the support of many, including leaders like the Archbishop of Zamboanga and other respected Muslims leaders of the city. We experienced also to have, among our friends, leaders who admired our mission but were afraid to show openly their support and friendship. I called them the “Nicodemus of Silsilah”. Like Nicodemus in the Gospel, he  was close to Jesus but he was afraid to be seen openly by others. Silsilah had this experience since the beginning up to now.

             Silsilah is the first organized Movement in Mindanao that, from the beginning, up to now is still active in the country. I can list down the many significant events that make Silsilah a sign of hope. Maybe this is one of the reasons why many, on national and international level, look at us with hope. Today many are discouraged to continue their dialogue, especially with the Muslims, because of the increasing radicalism and violence projected by some groups identified with Islam.

             Silsilah has also its martyrs; one of this is my close friend, Fr. Salvatore Carzedda, a PIME missionary who was with me when I started my first mission in Siocon in 1977. He was killed in Zamboanga City on May 20, 1992 during the Silsilah Summer Course on Muslim-Christian Dialogue, the same day he gave a lesson to the participants of the course. That was the beginning of a now radical and violent group that started in Zamboanga City and it is still active in some areas of Mindanao.  That was also the time when many discouraged us to continue Silsilah because of the difficulties. They considered us “naive” in promoting that kind of dialogue. But we decided to continue in the spirit of “Padayon”. (Move on). These few points can be enough to share the beginning of Silsilah and its experiences among the grass roots.

THE PROPOSED INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE FOR GRASS ROOTS IN THE PHILIPPINES             The influence of the Vatican II Council transformed, in many ways, the understanding of the mission. The beginning of the declaration of Vatican II “Nostra Aetate” for me is a great inspiration to be remembered. It is very inspiring also for the mission of interreligious dialogue on the grass roots level. It says:

“Men expect from various religions answers to the riddles of human condition, which today, even as in former times, are still deeply heard from men: What is man? What is the meaning of and the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is   the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution, after death? What finally, is the ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?” (NA, 1).

             This declaration and the many other documents of the Church related to the same topic can be considered as a “Copernican Revolution” in the field of interreligious dialogue in the Church. In a simple way it was a shift of paradigm from a dialogue based on the “truth of each religious belief and proselitism to a dialogue based on the common dignity as human being and the witness’ presence”. Thus, in dialogue we reaffirm the identity of each religion, but we are not called to debate about differences but to go to the deeper level of dialogue that is love and each one, according to our religion, has to find in each own religion the deeper motivation of this dialogue and love and share with others as friends, and as brothers and sisters. It is a new and long process of dialogue that is an expression of love.

             Unfortunately, this new ideas of dialogue has brought clarity in some and confusion in others. Some think that in this way the mission of the Church is not very clear, others start to be confused and think that all the religions are equal, etc.

             These confusions, unfortunately, were also brought at the level of the grass roots with so many negative implications.

             I cannot elaborate many details in this short presentation, but I can say that in the Philippines the Church in Mindanao was more open to the different new ideas and guidelines of Vatican II Council also in relation to the interreligious dialogue because the Mindanao Church is relatively new in comparison with the Northern part of the country.

4-1) SILSILAH AND THE GRASS ROOTS EXPERIENCE    

  • Since the beginning we clarified that Silsilah is an autonomous Movement for Dialogue formed by Christians and Muslims. Our dialogue in Mindanao is especially among Christians and Muslims, but for us this dialogue has to be with people of all religions. Thus, if we are in Thailand we have to be in dialogue also with Buddhists, if we are in India with Hindus, etc.
  • The decision to remain “autonomous” as a Movement is because we consider Silsilah the common venue/ house for all and we are in dialogue with all guided by our vision and mission. To make this sign more visible   after the beginning of Silsilah in the PIME house and a place offered initially by a religious community of sisters, we opened soon a Silsilah Center in the city of Zamboanga with a library with books on Christianity, Islam, spirituality, culture, dialogue, peace, etc.
  • We became close to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) especially because I was chosen for some years to be the executive secretary of the Episcopal Commission of Interreligious Dialogue of the CBCP on the national level and I helped in the organization of the Bishops’ Ulama Conference (BUC). This allowed me and Silsilah to be present in many activities on the national and international level. It was also a sign of appreciation of the CBCP of the mission of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement in Mindanao.
  • We started in 1987 the Silsilah Summer Course on Muslim-Christian Dialogue. We have run this course every year up to now. For 30 years this formation course has been a great opportunity for Silsilah to offer formation to Christian and Muslim leaders. One of the activities of the course is the immersion. During weekends of the one month course Christians are sent to Muslim families and Muslims to Christian families. The place of the exposure is, most of the time, among grass roots areas. There are many touching stories that the participants of these courses tell us about this experience and, in general, the summer course where Muslims and Christians live together.
  • Our presence among the grass roots is visible in many communities, especially through the immersion program in poor areas of Muslims and Christians. In most of these places we have small schools and kindergarten. The beginning of each presence in the grass roots communities have different touching stories to recall.
  • In some of these communities we have formed also “Harmony Zones”, a new concept to be in a community formed by majority poor people and bring there the spirit of dialogue starting from the Muslim and Christian leaders of the area. In the process usually we see what we can do together to help the people and to enter in the spirit of interreligious dialogue in simple and effective ways. This spirit is well accepted by them especially if they see the example of those who promote it.
  • The list can continue because Silsilah tries to answer the specific needs of the people, like the siege of 2013 in Zamboanga. On that occasion a big portion of the city was destroyed, including some of our schools and little centers in grass roots areas. That was a typical example where all are called to contribute to promote dialogue and peace in the midst of so much fear and hatred.
  • To this list of activities and programs of Silsilah we can add the effort of the Movement to promote dialogue with creation and the help to farmer communities and many other experiences. All these things need us to be sustained by the spirituality of life-in-Dialogue that we are committed to live and promote in a holistic way what we call Culture of Dialogue, Path to Peace.

 

  • 4-2) THE CULTURE OF DIALOGUE SPIRIT AND THE GRASS ROOTS

             The experience of the life-in-dialogue promoted by Silsilah can be considered a good entry point to start “praxis” of spirituality/experience of interreligious dialogue among the grass roots in the Philippines. There are also many other good experiences that can be studied and followed.

             Any experience to be sustainable need people who believe in this “journey of dialogue” to be able to build a PRAXIS.

             The praxis that we propose is the CULTURE OF DIALOGUE, PATH TO PEACE. We, in Silsilah, believe in it and we are trying to live and promote it as part of our mission. We believe that grass roots people can understand this experience and can share it in their daily life.

             Basically, it is a spiritual journey of personal and social transformation based on the four pillars of dialogue that we identify as:

  • Dialogue with God
  • Dialogue with the Self
  • Dialogue with Others
  • Dialogue with Creation 

 

Definition of the Culture of Dialogue:

“Culture of Dialogue is a holistic approach of dialogue that emphasizes the human and spiritual dimension of life-in-dialogue with God, with oneself, with others and with creation. It is a style of life marked by deeper relations among people of different cultures and religions which challenges them to build together a society where God’s values and ethics are the guiding principles in moving together towards harmony, solidarity and peace.”

             Some, in the beginning of Silsilah, were not convinced of a movement of dialogue with a spirituality , but, thanks to God, today in many parts of the world the spiritual aspect of dialogue is becoming more relevant in the effort to promote Peace and Harmony. This spirituality for us is an entry point for Christians and Muslims to revisit the real spirit of interreligious dialogue that is not a “strategy”, but a spirituality that we have to live and promote. We normally say that this spirituality has to be lived 24 hours a day. This means always, starting from the family, the religious group which we belong and all the other aspects of society. Guided by this spirit we, in Silsilah, do not use so much the term “interreligious dialogue” and “intra religious dialogue,” but we consider them part of the “DIALOGUE WITH OTHERS” that to be effective must become an experience of a holistic form of dialogue as an experience of the form of pillars of Dialogue. This means in the context of the spirit and experience of the Culture of Dialogue as I introduced above.

 

Thus, Dialogue for us is an expression of love in Action, Silence and Harmony

             This presentation of dialogue as an expression of love can be explained in many ways and I believe the grass roots people can understand well this concept because most of the time they practice this spirit although they need to internalize it and apply it in all situations of life, remaining faithful to their own religion. We believe that even simple things done by grass roots people can be forms of dialogue and expression of love in action, silence and harmony. They can become the “teachers of dialogue in society” if we empower them with the spirit of dialogue and help them to be united as group, overcoming the normal feeling to be more close to those who belong to the same language, culture and religion.

             The DIALOGUE OF ACTION is the most visible when people meet together and help each other. When this is done among people of different religions it can be considered a form of interreligious dialogue.

             The DIALOGUE OF SILENCE is a form of respect. This is not a passive way to live together among the grass roots, but it can become a “listening aspect of dialogue” where people are educated to respect and accept the differences and wait for the right time to act together or alone if others are not ready to “risk” in this form of dialogue or if they are still hesitant to start dialogue with courage and determination.

             The DIALOGUE IN HARMONY is a dialogue in process, ready to transform the normal feeling of dialogue out of fear and calculation, to a dialogue with courage that brings harmony in society “in the midst of divisions and conflicts”.

             We can say that all these steps are possible and often are considered forms of DIALOGUE OF LIFE. It becomes more effectively sustainable if this is lived and promoted as an experience of spirituality of life-in-dialogue. It is a kind of “dream” that can be achieved through different stages if we move together as “brothers and sisters” with the hope that we can find deeper motivation in our own religion that emphasize always the “MERCY AND COMPASSION OF GOD.” Thus, if all these forms of dialogue are done with LOVE we can say that dialogue is a form of spirituality and an experience of spirituality of life-in-dialogue.

4-3) FOCUS ON INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE AMONG GRASS ROOTS IN THE PHILIPPINES

Considering that this conference is promoted by Church organizations, it is important also to revisit the many documents of the Church from Vatican II up to now, including the different guidelines of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

      1. The Documents of the Church are many in this field of interreligious dialogue.
      2. I think it is important here to recall the forms of dialogue that the Church presents in different documents, especially in the document Dialogue and Proclamation (1991). These are:
  • DIALOGUE OF LIFE, where people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations.
  • DIALOGUE OF ACTION, in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people. 
  • DIALOGUE OF THEOLOGICAL EXCHANGE, where people seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other’s spiritual values.
  • DIALOGUE OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute. (DP – No. 43).

             Other forms of dialogue can be considered in the context of these basic forms of dialogue but is clear that for the grass roots people the DIALOGUE OF LIFE and DIALOGUE OF ACTION are close to the experience of the grass roots.

             It is not easy to apply these forms of dialogue considering that there are also other concrete considerations related to the “dialogue among groups and institutions” that sometimes make the dialogue difficult. This is possible also at the grass roots level. What is important is to be with the people and start   with sincere heart and in the process find ways to apply dialogue guided by the spirit of the Culture of Dialogue presented above.

      1. Other relevant documents and initiatives that I wish to mention here are:
    • The open letter of 138 Muslims leaders of the World addressed to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders of the world entitled “A Common Word between Us and You” (2007). This can be considered a great sign of dialogue coming from the Muslim UMMAH because it presents the love of God and the love of neighbour in Islam and Christianity as a basic foundation of dialogue and peace among Muslims and Christians.
  • The initiative of the United Nations to promote, in the first week of February every year the “World Interfaith Harmony Week” is also very relevant and can be promoted also among the grass roots. The main goal of this initiative is: Encouraging all States to support, on voluntary basis, the spread of the message of interfaith harmony and goodness in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship during that week (the first week of February, every year), based on love of God and love of neighbour or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbour, each according to their own religious traditions and convictions”. (From General Assembly of United Nations, 23 Nov. 2010)

             We in Silsilah have promoted this initiative of the United Nations because it is close to the spirit of the Movement and we are promoting it also on the national level. This can be also a very effective way to promote dialogue among the grass roots initiating activities filled to them.

CONCLUSION

             To make this experience of interreligious dialogue among grass roots people more meaningful I propose as conclusion some guidelines that we can remember using the acronym of C.A.R.E.:

             COURAGE to live in dialogue “in the midst of divisions and conflicts”

             APPRECIATION of what we can find relevant in other religions, like prayer, fasting, solidarity with the poor, etc.

             RESPECT of what we do not understand and sometimes we do not like in the other religious practices, but we respect in the spirit of solidarity provided that things done by others do not disturb the peaceful relations among people.

             EXAMPLE of living a life-in-dialogue in all the aspects of the life of the community. Example is always the best lesson that we can give to others and a form of Mission in the spirit of love and mercy.

             Putting apart many details we can say that the grass roots people in the Philippines experience some forms of interreligious dialogue without knowing that some cultural aspects present in their midst are already occasions to promote interreligious dialogue. We can mention for example the concept of “Bayanihan” that means help each other and other traditions more specific among different cultural groups.

             May the teachings of Jesus become a reality also in the mission of interreligious dialogue hoping that the grass roots people who are considered the last in society become the model of dialogue in our society.

             They were the ones who guided me in my experience of dialogue that became part of my life’s mission and “DREAM”; a dream that is now the dream of many of us. We are convinced that in the heart of each person there is a corner of love and mercy and the grass roots people are those who best understand this mission and apply it in their daily life.