by Ludwig Quirog, Regional Coordinator for Southeast Asia-Pacific Central Zone (Philippines)
On the 23rd of September 2015, I set foot once again on the large island of Southern Philippines called Mindanao to visit the United Religions Initiative’s (URI) cooperation circles (CC) there and to witness a culminating activity for the International Peace Advocacy Month of September. In my heart, there was a hint of anxiety because the last time I had been on the island was in 2013 and a war broke out a week after I left. Moreover, I had not been to this part of the island before and the only time it ever gets in the news is when bombs go off. Naturally, I was worried, especially since I was not entirely sure where I was going. Iligan City, I was told. The journey, which took just a few minutes over an hour, saw me struggling to maintain equanimity, but what greeted me when I finally planted my feet back on land was rather surprising. It seemed quite like my home community; we spoke the same language and I saw smiles even bigger than those that greet me in my own neighborhood.
I was welcomed by Pakigdait CC’s organizational staff and later had a nice conversation with Bishop Stephen Villaester, leader of the Interfaith Council for Peace in Mindanao CC, about his group’s work in promoting peace. Recently, they have been instrumental in educating people about the Bangsamoro Basic Law, a bill currently under deliberation by the Philippine Congress which would establish a new autonomous political entity, thereby enacting the 2014 peace agreement signed between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. It was inspiring to hear stories of the resilience of his team in spite of being jeered at, called names and being told by both Christians and Muslims that they were sent by the devil. It’s amazing how much pain and suffering you are willing to endure when you are fully aware that your work will bear fruits of reconciliation and peace. It’s the only kind of battle I believe in—one that uses communication and education as a tool to combat ignorance and indifference.
The following day, the 24th, was the day I was particularly looking forward to. For years, as an active CC leader in the global community of URI, I had been reading countless inspiring stories about Musa Mohamad Sanguila and Pakigdait CC’s work—the wonderful things they have been able to achieve and the peace that they are striving to proliferate in the land. It had previously all been photos, text and videos until I found myself standing in the middle of a decommissioned camp for the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), another armed militant group fighting for the cause of autonomy and self-governance. It was surreal to think that the very ground I was on, which had been a training and breeding ground for violent resistance, was now a community centre full of lots of people, both Muslims and Christians, who believed in peace like I did.
The date chosen for the culminating celebration of peace month was made to coincide with the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha. It was historic as not only were there talks about peace but we all saw the turning in of high-powered firearms by the MNLF in exchange for farm equipment and long term assistance with sustainable livelihood projects. The group’s former commander, Mr. Abedin Sanguila, said as part of a very impassioned speech in front of the local community and guests from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Philippine National Police (PNP), the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), “I am doing this because I don’t want my children to live in violence like I once did.” Simple words but they deliver a very clear message telling us that that he is making an active decision to break the cycle of violence that has been handed down from generation to generation for over a century. For his faith, his statement was even more meaningful, said on the day of the greater Eid. Isn’t it such an enormous sacrifice for a person to leave his old ways in pursuit of a greater cause? I certainly think so. And each time a person turns away from violence and accepts the way of peace, I feel a great sense of affirmation for doing what I do. It really is possible no matter how incredibly difficult it may seem.
The end of the series of speeches led to a ceremonious tucking away of the weapons in padlocked wooden crates. Musa Sanguila, the leader of Pakigdait CC, said in his speech for the day, that the firearms are on a journey to the scrap yard to hopefully be recycled and turned into things that will assist people in life rather than bring death. The event concluded with a Halal lunch shared by Muslims and Christians alike. I smiled in amazement watching people of different faiths and backgrounds break bread together, share smiles and exchange words—an Anglican bishop to a Muslim imam, a hijabi Muslim woman to a Roman Catholic priest and even a British volunteer named Guy, who was, for days, the only Caucasian person I had seen in the city. Interacting with others and having conversations over a meal is such a natural thing for us human beings and it’s difficult to imagine that it would not have been possible in this place a number of years ago. Indeed, as was said in the book of Isaiah, there had been a beating of “swords into ploughshares” and “spears into pruning hooks.” It’s truly amazing how we see the Divine Presence at work in the good things that happen around us.
For a place with on-going conflict, Mindanao receives little attention from international media unless Americans or Europeans disappear there. Most foreigners only ever hear or read the word “Mindanao” from various lists, circulating all over the internet, of places that tourists should avoid. It’s sad but true. And I think the lack of knowledge of the situation of the place is the reason why it’s so easy to make assumptions about it. There’s a saying that goes, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” and it’s true. This little knowledge is what causes presidents to declare all-out wars, independence fighters to be branded as terrorists, and certain people to be collectively perceived as inherently violent simply because they profess a particular faith that is different from that of the country’s majority. It is my prayer that the work of Pakigdait CC, the Interfaith Council for Peace in Mindanao, the Interfaith Youth Council, and the Ranao Muslim-Christian Movement for Dialogue and Reconciliation will continue their work planting seeds of peace all over their land, and that these seeds will bear fruits of healing and peace for Mindanao, setting an example for the rest of the world.
May Peace Prevail in Mindanao.
May Peace Prevail on Earth.