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 Global Perspective

July 23, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 17

Global Perspective
Edmund Chia is a Malaysian who works in Thailand as Executive Secretary for the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences.



Archbishop Fernando Capalla of Davao said he is convinced that "dialogue must begin in and with the family [True dialogue exists] when we are able to spend the night in each others' home."



To learn more about Bishops-Ulama Forum, visit its Web site.

Another image of Muslim-Christian relationship

By Edmund Chia

BANGKOK -- In today's geopolitical climate, the mention of the island of Mindanao conjures up images of the Abu Sayyaf and their kidnap-for ransom strategies or the war waged by the Philippine army on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) or of suicide bombings and explosions in airports and shopping malls. The international media even at times characterize this as a conflict between good and evil or between terrorists and the civilized world or, worse still, between Islam and Christianity. This, in a way, fits into the larger scheme of global affairs, especially in the context of the "war on terror" (as the administration of U.S. President George Bush calls it) or the "terror on Islam" (as Muslims perceive it).

Mindanao, however, has another side. The images that best capture this other side are those of Archbishop Fernando Capalla of Davao and the Bishops-Ulama Forum, which he co-founded in 1996. Capalla has joined with Gov. Mahid Mutilan of the Muslims' Ulama League of the Philippines and Bishop Hilario Gomez of the Protestants' National Council of Churches of the Philippines to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue on a regular basis at all levels of society. The Bishops-Ulama Forum meets once every three months; priests, imams and pastors hold regular forums and plan a variety of Christian-Muslim activities among youth, social workers and other groups.

Dialogue and swimming
Asked to describe his leadership style for such a sensitive and challenging endeavor, Capalla responded with an anecdote: "Once, at one of our assemblies, I remarked that the weather was very hot and how foolish it was for us to be having a meeting while we could all see the beautiful beach outside. I suggested we go for a swim. And we did. That did more for our dialogue than hours of meeting would." Preparing for another assembly, Capalla he suggested the ulama bring along their wives and children. "Since we bishops have no wives," Capalla added, "we invited the sisters from our dioceses to the assembly." Initially the facilitator of the assembly had separate activities for the men and the women. But, when the delegates began to complain, this was modified so that husbands and wives could be together for all the activities. Capalla said this reinforced his belief that "dialogue must begin in and with the family."

Trust in the relationship is a basic requisite for successful dialogue. This must not only be present but must also be seen to be there. Capalla recounted how amazed some people were when they saw him joking with and teasing Mutilan in public. (Mutilan is also vice governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.) "They saw the human element in our relationship," Capalla said. This congenial relationship must be carried over to one's daily living. The sense of trust must prevail beyond the formal events of interreligious dialogues. Capalla suggests that true dialogue exists "when we are able to spend the night in each others' home." He discloses that he is able to do that with Mutilan and that the latter can do the same at his home. Not only that. When the house of a Muslim religious scholar was burned down Capalla invited the whole family to stay in a priest's house for the three months they needed to find a new home.

What do his own priests and parishioners say about him? Capalla confesses that herein lies his failings. A bishop for 28 years and having been responsible for hundreds of priests and thousands of parishioners, Capalla laments that many Catholics continue to think he spends too much time with the Muslims. Some even suggest that the military should just "finish them off, kill all those Muslims in Mindanao." It has also been reported that some priests carry handguns. "How can they witness to the gospel?" Capalla asks rhetorically.

The second Bishops-Ulama Forum condemned "the formation of vigilante and fanatical groups on either side" and, instead, resolved to "work for the security of minority Muslims in Christian-dominated areas, as well as minority Christians living in Muslim-dominated areas." In a pastoral letter written in 2000, the archbishop cautions that "it is a gross error to brand all Muslims as members or supporters of the Moro rebels and kidnappers." In fact, many good Muslims do not even acknowledge those who commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam as Muslims. At best they are regarded as bad Muslims, just as some Christians would regard the warmongers among the Western leaders as bad Christians.

Wounds deep and wide
Capalla, on the other hand, is well aware that many Christians and Muslims have been severely hurt and wounded on account of the acts of terror committed by both sides. "Their wounds are deep and wide, and are not getting healed. And they speak through their wounds," he submits. "The sounds we hear are those of bitterness, anger, hatred, depression, hopelessness. This we understand. Even some of our Church people are speaking and behaving in the same manner," sighs the archbishop. "But while we understand and respect their feelings we as Church cannot espouse the way of violence and armed struggle. It is contrary to our Christian belief and teaching," Capalla admonishes.

In the August, the Bishops-Ulama Forum will hold its 22nd general assembly. A gathering of bishops and ulama from Southeast Asia will follow, August 19-20, under the theme "Seeking Peace and Development through an authentic Christian and Muslim dialogue of life in Asia." The assembly will feature workshops on conflict-situations in different countries and recommendations on how bishops and ulama can respond to them collectively in each country of Southeast Asia.

The gathering is important given the demonization of Islam by the west as well as Muslims' suspicion of anything associated with the west, including Christians in Asia.

Mindanao is a microcosm of a global reality. If in Mindanao Muslims and Christians are perceived to be in conflict, a similar perception is projected on to the global scene as conflict between the West and the Islamic world. If in Mindanao both sides are victims as well as perpetrators of violence, the same is true of the Western powers -- with their military might -- and the Islamic jihadists -- with their suicide bombers.

What is lacking on the global level is a parallel Bishops-Ulama Forum that could help inject the spiritual and faith dimensions into the various road maps for peace.

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