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Keynote during Mindanao Week of Peace Launching Nov. 24, 2022 (November 30 to December 7, 2022)

Nov 26, 2022 | Columns

by Fr. Joel E. Tabora, SJ

We are happy again this year to come together in celebration of the Mindanao Week of Peace (MWP).  Our Mindanao has had a long history of conflict.  Some have attributed this to differing religious faiths, to conflicts between Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, to conflicts between islamized and non-islamized indigenous peoples.  Some have attributed it to conflicts between Mindanawons and settler groups from the North.  Others have attributed it to disputes over lands, or to disputes over the interests of powerful families and tribes, or to the retribution (Rido) one is obligated to exact when the honor of certain individuals, families or tribes is violated.  We have experienced the brutish violence of the Ilagas, the counter-violence of the Blackshirts and the Barracudas, the wars of secession, the protracted struggles for autonomy, and the all-out war of the State against the Mindanao Muslims, the appeal to the Organization of Islamic States.  Many people have died. Many have been wounded.  Many have been displaced from their homes. Today, much has improved.  Some say peace is at hand.  Others more appropriately say: Peace is yet a work in progress. Peace is in our hands.

The Bishops-Ulama Conference and the Mindanao Week of Peace

In this context, we recall the work of the Bishops-Ulama Conference, convened in November 1996 by Abp. Fernando Capalla of the Archdiocese of Davao, Bishop Hilario Gomez, Jr., Bishop Emeritus of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, and Dr. Mahid Mutilan, President of the Ulama League of the Philippines.  They represented Catholics, Protestants and Muslims.  It was in their shared inter-religious commitment to peace in Mindanao that the first Mindanao Week of Peace was celebrated in Nov. of 2001 through a Presidential Proclamation issued by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  Today, Christians and Muslims together, we gather again for the MWP to continue the tradition of working together for peace.  Islam is a religion of Salaam, Peace.  It worships a God of compassion and peace.  It wishes for all peace.  Christianity worships the self-revealing God of reconciliation and peace through the Prince of Peace. Together Muslims and Christians are peoples of peace.

Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Togethre

On Feb 4, 2019 the Grand Imam of Al Azahr, Ahmed Al Tayyeb, representing Muslims from East and West, and Pope Francis, representing Catholics from East and West, journeyed from Cairo in Africa and Rome in Europe respectively to meet in Abu Dhabi in the Arabian Peninsula.  They journeyed together for peace.  There they jointly proclaimed a Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.  The efforts of the Mindanao bishops and ulamas for peace were now echoed by the efforts of the Grand Imam and the Pope for peace.  In the name of all those who had suffered violence and death from wars fought illegitimately in the name of religion, the Grand Imam and the Pope declared ‘the culture of dialogue as the path, mutual cooperation as the code of conduct, and reciprocal understanding as the method and standard” that would presumably lead to peace.

This call for world was echoed anew by religious and political leaders in the Bahrain Forum of Nov. 4 with its theme, “East and West for Human Coexistence.  The Pope delivered the keynote.  The Grand Imam of Al Azhar was there.  The Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew was there.  His Majesty Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the King of Bahrain was there. ”In the garden of humanity,” the Pope declared, “instead of cultivating our surroundings, we are playing instead with fire, missiles and bombs, weapons that bring sorrow and death, covering our common home with ashes and hatred.”  We must keep before our eyes The Document for Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”  In its light, must pray in renewed appreciation of religious freedom, educate against extremism and for dialogue, and act courageously today for peace, standing up against the perpetrators of violence.[i] 

Meanwhile, this Document for Human Fraternity has been formally adopted by the Bishops’-Ulama Conference as it has been adopted by the Office of the Presidential Peace Adviser for Peace, Reconciliation and Unity.  Shortly after its publication I had the honor of presenting this Document personally to Chief Minister Al Hadj Murad Ebrahim, who received it gratefully in the name of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).  The Document reminds us that we are sisters and brothers having all been created by a compassionate God and Father of us all.  We are sisters and brothers acknowledging and worshipping the one Creator God.  In our worship and submission to his will, we recognize our fraternity in shared creation and the need to live together in the peace God gives us.  Together with the Grand Imam and the Pope, the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew and the King of Bahrain, we hold that:

“Authentic values of religions invite us to remain rooted in the values of peace, to defend the values of mutual understanding, human fraternity and mutual coexistence. 

“Freedom is the right of every person:  each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action.

“Justice based on mercy is the path to follow.

“Dialogue promotes a culture of tolerance, and reduces economic, social, political and environmental problems.

“Dialogue among believers means “coming together” in the vast space of spiritual, human, and shared social values and “transmitting the highest moral values that religions aim for.”

“Places of worship are to be protected.

“Terrorism is deplorable.

“Citizenship is based on equality of rights and duties under which all enjoy justice.

“The recognition of fundamental human rights;  the desirability of good relations between east and west.

“The right of women to education and employment and to exercise their own political rights.

“The right of children to grow up in a family environment, to receive nutrition, education and support.

“The protection of the elderly, the weak, the disabled and the oppressed.

“All this leads to a joint aspiration to be a witness to the greatness of faith in God

And consequently to be a witness to the closeness between East and West, between North and South. 

Urgency for Fraternity and World Peace

It is easy to forget why this joint aspiration was so urgent.  We become numbed to stories of war and conflict.  We hear them so often we no longer hear them.  So much killing, so much dying!  We tend to push what we are helpless against into the back of our minds so that we can attend to more urgent matters of the day.  But what can be more urgent than the sufferings and dying of human beings?  If we want peace in Mindanao, we must understand how violence in Mindanao is linked to violence in the world, which we would too often rather forget.  Instead, we do not address the many unresolved conflicts in our world with their roots ironically in religion; we do not address the passionate desire to defend, promote or impose religion which in the name of God often degenerates into a need to coerce religion, even if coercion has involved some of the most ungodly cruelties in the name of the compassionate God.  We Christians have had our sad experience of this in the medieval Inquisition, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Crusades. 

Religious violence in the name of uniformity of truth, religious violence to conquer adherents of different Christian faiths, religious violence to conquer people of a different religion  have sometimes motivated an explicit rejection of religion, or has at least motivated a type of religious neutralism, an attempt to find a governing principle of human society that is not based on “doing God’s will”, which too often is but man’s self-serving will mystified.  We believe we have arrived at a way of living together that is soberly rational – like Marxian communism or democratic socialism or Ba’athism.  The latter was an Arab secular socialism that played a significant role in the religious conflicts of Iraq and of Syria. 

In Iraq, Ba’athism was mixed with political adventurism under Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran in 1980.[ii]  This called forth the opposition of the theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini. The decades of irreligious and religious conflict between these countries followed.  The Iranian theocracy continues to rule in Iran today as women burn their hijabs and cut their hair in a courageous cry for freedom.  The ruling theocracy defends itself with mass arrests, sham trials, and executions.  The question, however, is whether they are revolting against the one Holy God in revolting against the Iranian theocracy, or whether those who kill the protesters are mindless of the will of God.  “The believers are brothers [and sisters], so make peace between your brothers [and sisters] and be mindful of God so that you may receive mercy.” (Qur’an 49:10).

In Syria the Ba’athist President Hafez al-Assad implemented a new constitution in 1973 imposing a Ba’athist ideology on the country through the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party.[iii]  Thereby Islam was no longer considered the state religion of Syria and its President no longer needed to be Muslim.  The measures enraged the Islamic population against Hafez al-Assad, leading to fierce demonstrations led by the Muslim Brotherhood.  Their protests however were violently crushed.  When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, his son, Boshar al-Assad took over, and continued to fight all religious opposition to his brand of secular socialism through the Syrian Armed Forces.  It called forth mainly Sunni opposition in the Free Syrian Army, the Salafi Jihadist groups and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  The much-publicized brutality of the ISIL, spread instantaneously through social media, reaped the violent opposition of the US-led international coalition, which spawned its own brand of human rights violations. 

In the Palestine-Israeli conflict today, the Israelis continue to deny the Palestinians a homeland.[iv]  Especially since the 6-days war of 1967.  Militarily the Israelis overpower them. Their aggressive settlement policy denies them land in the West Bank and the Gaza strip and their hopes there for an independent Palestinian state.  The talk of a two-state policy, originally clear and confident, is now diminished.  The Israeli preference to a rival Palestinian state seems just to keep the Palestinians overpowered, oppressed.  Which, of course, the Palestinians cannot accept.  Under the banner of the People’s Liberation Organization (PLO) or under the banner of the Hamas they fight to preserve their right to stay in the land they also believe God promised them – despite the military might of the Israelis.

Originally, before the first WW it was the Palestinians that controlled the land under the Ottoman conquerors from Turkey.  But World War I changed that.  The British drove the Turks out of Palestine and took over.  Through the Balfour declaration of 1917 they promised the British and Irish Zionists “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”  They did this promising that the rights of the original Palestinians would not be impaired.  Their promise involved the Palestinians, but they did not consult them.  So the Zionists came and the State of Israel was founded.  But not the counterpart Palestinian state. The recent re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister in alliance with anti-Palestinian conservatives will strengthen the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, further dimming the prospects of a counterpart Palestinian State to the Jewish State.  Therefore the conflict continues, famously “one of the world’s most enduring conflicts.”  “This land is mine,” the theme song of the Hollywood movie, Exodus, goes, “God gave this land to me. …  If I must fight I’ll fight to make this land my own.  Until I die, this land is mine.”  Hollywood made it the song of the Jew fighting for a homeland.[v]  Today it is also the song of the Palestinian. 

These are only some examples of longstanding conflicts and wars with religious roots.  More recently, the current Russian aggression against Ukraine is executed with the blessing and support of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill who views the war as “a struggle for the eternal salvation” of ethnic Russians.  Other Orthodox Patriarchs disagree, like the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and the leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  But their opposition does not neutralize the evil inflicted on Ukraine with the blessing of Kirill.

The questions and ambiguities of this world remain.  Peace is elusive.   The role of religions in making or breaking peace is intermingled with the idealism or pragmatism, integrity or corruption, kindness or violence, rationality or cynicism of real persons in our world today. 

From our experience in Mindanao, we are convinced: you do not have peace when the acknowledgement of God, the One, the Absolute is absent; without faith in the true God false gods appear in shapes of golden calves or snakes or craven images of personal wealth, wisdom or glory.  You do not have peace when the genuine belief of another is rejected as false and their adherents consequently disrespected as degraded human beings.  You do not have peace when a religion is forced on another in the name of God, making those who reject this religion “godless”, and so worthy of scorn, hatred and violent outcasting.  You do not have peace when peoples of different faiths all needing to live on a shared island that God created for all are “othered” and demonized and deprived of their means of livelihood.  You do not have peace when instead of talking to each other in dialogue, finding ways of collaboration, and pathways of deeper understanding for each other, each stops talking to “liars”, condemns collaboration with the other as foolhardy, if not treason, and gloats in discovering only Satan lurking in the other. 

From the experience of our world, you do not have peace if religious belief is reduced to an arrogant dogmatism that allows one to think one possesses all truth.  Consider what has happened to religious theocratic states.  “God’s will” absolutizes human decisions and permits the most inhumane courses of action.  The most ungodly actions, like torture, rape, illegal detention, execution, and modern technically-advanced warfare are executed in praise of God.

But you also do not have peace if religious belief is rejected and faith is placed solely in human rationalism in a world where God is extirpated.  The rationality that emerges divinizes itself in its claim for absoluteness, blinds itself to possible error, and so errs.  Think of what has happened to the secular socialisms and communisms or secularisms that engage in murderous modern warfare and test weapons of mass destruction with the intent to use them.  Think of the godless secularism and consumerist ideology that threaten today the very existence of the planet.

Against such godless “rationality” religious militants have risen to defend the rights of God and return humanity to the rule of God.  But such a theocracy only mystifies the misused power of politicians.  The heads of enemies are cut off in front of millions and God is called to be praised.

In this broad local and global context we seek today to understand the chosen theme of the MWP:

Enduring Peace:  Mindanao Living Together in Solidarity, Service and Security towards a Sustainable Future. 

We do so in the light of the Document for Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.  In this light:

Peace can endure in Mindanao only if, whether Muslim, Catholic or Protestant Christian, Islamized or non-islamized Lumad, or settlers from the north, even Buddhists, Sikhs or Hindus, we recognize that we are brothers and sisters created by one compassionate God called to promote world peace and living together through the culture of dialogue as the path, collaboration as the code of conduct, and mutual understanding as the method and standard of attaining fraternity through social friendship.

Peace can endure only if we acknowledge God.  God calls each of us to acknowledge him in the diversity of religions that he himself has created.  We prostrate ourselves to worship this God, obey his commands and do not take his name in vain.  We do not attribute to God what is only ours.  We do not call God’s will what is merely ours. 

Enduring Peace is therefore Mindanawons living together in an enduring fraternity, where each individual lives in solidarity with all through service.  The value of each individual life is guaranteed and enhanced in fraternity, just as the blessedness of the fraternity is in the service brought to the fraternity by each individual brother or sister.  This concrete-universal solidarity includes the service of the farmer, the fisherman, the market vendor, the carpenter, the engineer, the teacher, the school administrator, the industrial technician, the entrepreneur, the artist, the economist, the political leader, the religious leader, all advancing fraternity through their individual contributions.  All are called to participate according to the gifts of his or her life.  All are called to encourage this participation, to empower it, even when such participation calls in question standing ways of doing things.  The political leader leads in humble service, calling forth and coordinating  the optimum participation of all;  he or she  is inspired by his or her relationship with God, seeking always to discern his will, but always proceeds with the humble acknowledgement that in proposing projects and solutions to problems, he is not the master of the Divine, but the Divine his Master, that God’s ways are often inscrutable, and that as a leader of the human community he is fallible and vulnerable.

This is true in the barangay halls, the offices of the governors and mayors, in the halls of various sanggunian, in the chambers of justices and even in the ministries and workings of the Bangsamoro parliament.  Officials are the servants of fraternity, and fraternity the mandate of the officials.  It is also true in the dreams of the youth preparing themselves through study, immersion and service for outstanding contributions to the community.

The “security” that is worked for “towards a sustainable future” is not only freedom from external aggression.  It is not only the certainty of adequate food, clothing, shelter, and the will to enhance this production towards a shared prosperity for all that does not destroy our planet.   But it is the security of an assured other-worldly fulfillment that comes with belief in and service of a just and holy God.

Some Challenges for the MWP 2022

Perhaps we can end this reflection on the occasion of the Mindanao Week of Peace with a number of questions to amplify our reflection.

Do you think that global peace can ever be attained?  Do the dialogue, collaboration and mutual understanding of human fraternity work in our world?  In a world of great tensions and of manifest pragmatism, is belief in God and behavior based on this belief relevant?  Discuss.

Mindanao has had a long and painful history of seeking peace.  What has been the Christian contribution to peace or lack of peace in Mindanao?  Today it is said that in the Bangsamoro and in the BARMM peace has been partially achieved.  What is lacking? What contribution can you make as a Muslim or as a Christian to making this an enduring peace?

Is Philippine democracy and government guided by faith?  Or is it rather God-neutral or godless?  Is it best when guided by faith and prayer?  Or most Godly when guided by reason and science?  Explain.

Is the BARMM a theocracy or a democracy?  What is Islamic about the BARMM government?  Does it include or exclude peoples of other faiths?  Does the BARMM promote peace for all?  Or is it focused on a segment of the population that is newly-privileged?

What community do you belong to in the broad array of communities in Mindanao?  How can you contribute to a fraternity in Mindanao that guarantees peace?

What is your view of the economy in Mindanao?  Impelled by faith and empowered by the education you have received, what ought you contribute to making this economy more responsive to the needs of people in Mindanao, especially its poor and marginalized, rather than to entrenched capitalists and institutions in Manila?

Do you have an appreciation of how much our economy has destroyed of the Mindanao environment? It has felled its old-growth forests, killed its ancient coral reefs, mined its mountains, substituted monocrop plantations for bio-diverse forests, dirtied its air with carbon emissions, squandered its sources of fresh water.  The loss of food and water security is already a source of conflict.  What can you do to stop the destruction of our God-given common home in Mindanao in the advancement of peace?

We have come together in celebration of the Mindanao Week of Peace.  Islam is a religion of peace.  Christianity worships a God of peace.  As we said at the outset of this talk: Today, in matters of peace in Mindanao, much has improved.  Some say peace is at hand.  But in a corrupt and violent world where truth is eroded, or even denied, we must guard the peace, and carefully nurture it.  The peace is lost when we take God’s name in vain.  The peace is lost when we make decisions in a world without God.  The peace is lost when my will is mystified as His will, or when we erase God from our world. There is one God.  One human fraternity.  There is profound worship of this God and glory given Him when we decide to live together as brothers and sisters in peace.  Peace is in our hands.  Peace is in God’s hand.  It is by his finger that he exorcizes demons. [vi]


[i] https://gulfnews.com/world/gulf/bahrain/the-worlds-great-religions-should-work-together-for-peace-full-text-of-pope-franciss-speech-at-bahrain-forum-1.1667559147807

[ii] cf. https://www.britannica.com/event/Iran-Iraq-War

[iii] cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_civil_war

[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli–Palestinian_conflict

[v] Exodus Song by Ernest Gold from the Otto Preminger Film “Exodus”, 1960

[vi] cf. Lk 11:20

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