The Common Good
July-August 2002

A Miracle in Mindanao

by Mary Ann Cejka | July-August 2002

Christians and Muslims build bridges in the Philippines

The Christians of Isulan were out for revenge. A young Muslim had stabbed a Christian youth, and Christian adults were determined that Muslims would pay for the crime. As Christians and Muslims faced each other, raised their guns, and took aim, Bernie Eliseo knew he had to act quickly. He stepped between the two groups, facing his fellow Christians.

"If you insist on killing our Muslim neighbors, you're going to have to kill me too," he told them. Startled, both groups lowered their weapons. A potential bloodbath was averted by the selfless response of one determined peacemaker.

Eliseo, a community leader, had learned mediation skills at a workshop called "Panagtagbo sa Kalinaw"—Culture of Peace—which has since been offered in communities throughout Mindanao, the southernmost of the larger Philippine islands. Christians, Muslims, and members of indigenous groups who attend the workshops reflect together on the harmful stereotyping of one another that can lead to violence. They study the history of the diverse religious and cultural groups in Mindanao and articulate their dreams for peace among those groups. Finally, they learn mediation strategies and engage in role-playing to practice their new skills.

Judging by the events of the last 30 years, Mindanao has a long way to go before its culture becomes a culture of peace. One long-standing conflict continues to be fought between the Marxist New People's Army and the Philippine military. Another protracted source of strife has been a conflict between Moros—members of any of 13 ethno-linguistic groups whose cultural traditions are Muslim—and the mostly Catholic Filipinos whose families immigrated to Mindanao from other Philippine islands after World War II. Because of these two decades-long conflicts, many young Mindanawons have grown up with images of war's atrocities fixed in their memories. Lolito Palomares, a lay minister in the village of Josefina, recalls curfews, evacuations, and the horrible sight of bodies strewn along roadsides.

"I became active in the church because the church offers an alternative to violence," explains Palomares. "To be a Christian is to stand for life."

But not all Christians in Mindanao are convinced of this insight. "A good Moro is a dead Moro," some are fond of saying. There are Moros who show similar animosity toward the Christian settlers who now make up the majority of their island. As one Moro saying has it, "A Muslim who kills a Christian goes straight to paradise riding a white horse."

Hostility between Moros and Christians in Mindanao has not been limited to hateful attitudes and angry slogans. In the 1970s, the ruthless oppression of Moros by the Marcos dictatorship and their discriminatory treatment at the hands of the Christian majority sparked a violent uprising among Moro groups in Mindanao. The Moros sought to regain the autonomy that they had preserved even after Spain had conquered other areas of the Philippines, but lost in 1898 when Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States. Even after the Philippines was granted its independence in 1946, the Moro people never regained their autonomy.

THEIR STRUGGLE FOR autonomy has played itself out not only between the Philippine military and Moro militias, but also between ordinary Muslim and Christian people. In contested areas, stories abound of shootings, kidnappings, massacres, and the burning of houses, churches, and mosques. Last August, Columban Father Rufus Halley, who had devoted his life to bringing Christians and Muslims together in the villages of Malabang and Balabagan, was killed by an extremist Moro group in a botched kidnapping attempt. Weeping when they heard the news, many brave Moros donned traditional mourning attire and ignored Muslim proscriptions against entering Catholic churches to attend the funeral. Out of solidarity with his Moro neighbors, Halley had learned to speak fluent Maranaw, their local dialect.

A culture of peace will not come about without such generous acts of solidarity, according to Grace Rebollos of the grassroots Christian organization Peace Advocates Zamboanga (PAZ). That's why PAZ members on Mindanao's Zamboanga peninsula decided to join their Muslim neighbors in fasting from dawn to dusk during the Islamic sacred month of Ramadan, then invited the Muslims into their homes to break the fast.

Sometimes such simple gestures of friendship go further than official negotiations when it comes to building a culture of peace, explains Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Angelica Cruz. She and two other Immaculate Heart sisters live on the boundary between Muslim and Christian neighborhoods in the community of Labangan, on the outskirts of Pagadian City. There they attempt to be a prayerful, hospitable presence in an area that was formerly a battleground between Moro militias and government forces. The sisters visit the sick and share the harvests of their garden and fishpond with Muslim families. Muslim friends have reciprocated by sewing brilliantly colored altar cloths designed especially for the sisters' chapel.

Anthropologist and human rights activist Karl Gaspar (see "A Caged Bird Sings," Sojourners, January-February 2001) has just completed a research project on grassroots efforts to respond creatively to the violence that for so long has plagued Mindanao.

"In many peace initiatives," observes Gaspar, who collaborated with Maryknoll's Center for Mission Research & Study on the project, "only those who are seen to have direct access to power, authority, status, technology, armies with high-powered guns, and other resources are brought into the inner circle of the negotiations. In many instances, grassroots communities hardly matter in the whole peace process. And yet, in the end, it is the grassroots communities who suffer the brunt once the negotiations fail." Gaspar concludes that the efforts of ordinary people at peacemaking must no longer be ignored.

"They could push away the encroaching waves of violence so that their families could temporarily live in tranquility. They could evolve weapons of the weak that help to resist the machinations of the strong and mighty who will not hesitate to violate the people's rights in order to advance their selfish interests." In Mindanao, Gaspar found, the "weapons of the weak" are primarily gestures of hospitality and service to members of the opposing group.

"Acts of kindness towards one's enemies can create the conditions for more formal efforts at reconciliation," explains historian Rudy Rodil. A founder of the "Kalinaw Mindanaw" (Peace in Mindanao) movement, which combines grassroots peacemaking efforts with institutional initiatives, Rodil and his wife Saturnina recall their encounter with a man who was a descendant of both Christians and Muslims and who practiced both religious traditions. One night some Moro soldiers had stolen and eaten coconuts from trees on his property. When the offenders were caught and brought before him, he forgave them and invited them to help themselves to his coconuts whenever they felt hungry.

"One simple act of compassion sparked off a chain reaction of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims," recounts Rodil, smiling broadly. Soon the village that had been the site of the incident—and, more seriously, of many years of bloody conflict—was declared a Peace Zone. Possession of weapons and acts of violence are now forbidden within its parameters.

"One day we may see a miracle," predicts Rodil, observing how informal, positive interactions between opposing factions have often created the climate necessary for successful higher-level negotiations. In the end, the miracle of peace will dawn gently upon Mindanao—not through the din of armies or the rhetoric of politicians, but through patient dialogue and persistent gestures of friendship among many courageous people of all faiths.

Mary Ann Cejka is an associate researcher at Maryknoll's Center for Mission Research & Study in New York. For more information on the Mindanao peace research project, see www.maryknoll.org/EDUCA/STUDY/grassroot.htm.

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