A Miracle in Mindanao: Christians and Muslims Build Bridges in the Philippines

Article excerpt

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. …