(Speech delivered at the “Thirst For Peace: Religions and Cultures in Dialogue” in Assisi, Italy on September 18-20, 2016, on the Panel Discussion “Terrorism Denies God.” Pope Francis addressed some 400 participating leaders from various religions worldwide, on September 20, the World Day of Prayer for Peace).
Some two weeks ago on September 2, an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated in the crowded night market of the southern city of Davao, Philippines. Fifteen were killed and some 69 other shoppers and promenaders were wounded. Most were Christians.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) claimed responsibility for it and credited its ally, Daulat Ul-Islamiya for the crime.
Previous to the bombing, President Rodrigo Duterte had ordered the military to wage an all-out offensive to crush them. The Davao terrorism was a signal to the Philippine President that ASG power can reach anywhere, even his own city of Davao.
Who are the Abu Sayyaf?
Their name, Abu Sayyaf, is Arabic and means “Bearer of the Sword.” They are a violent group estimated at 400 members built around close knit family structures that give them unity.
Their founder was a former teacher on the island of Basilan. He trained with Al-Qaeda and fought against the Russians in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda operatives and members of Malaysian and Indonesian terrorist groups have trained them. They are aligned particularly with the Indonesian terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah.
They have confronted and eluded military and police offensives with relatively few casualties in the past 15 years. A good number of ASG commanders and bandits have been killed but the government has not decimated their forces.
Their political and religious objective is to establish an independent Islamic state in southern Philippines. In the early years such ideological orientation was more pronounced. But even from the beginning they were already into criminal activities. In 1991 an ASG grenade kiled two American Evangelists. In 1995 the ASG burned the Zamboanga town of Ipil, killed 53 and took a number of hostages.
Through the years they have been on a rampage of killings, assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, extortion, and drug trafficking.
In 2004 the ASG bombing of a Superferry with 900 passengers just one hour after it left Manila was the most devastating ship disaster in Philippine history. 118 innocent passengers were killed. A sheer act of terrorism.
High profile kidnapping of Christian Filipinos and foreigners with ransoms up to millions of pesos and dollars for a group support their activities, Such are the kidnappings at world class beach resorts as at the Malaysian Sipadan Resort (2000), the Palawan Dos Palmas Resort (2001). In the Samal City Resort kidnapping (2015) two Canadian nationals were eventually beheaded. A third hostage, a Norwegian, was released only two days ago, after about a year of captivity. Also released were Indonesian fishermen.
In the abduction of students and teachers of a Basilan Catholic school in 2000, Fr. Roel Gallardo, a Claretian priest was horrendously tortured and finally executed.
Part of the terroristic activities is the beheading of victims, whose governments would not pay the ransom demands of the ASG.
ASG claims that their terrorist activities are in support of their ideological and religious objective of establishing a Muslim state.
The United Nations and several Western and Asian countries have called it officially as a terrorist organization.
In 2014 their leader, Isnilon Totoni Hapilon, swore allegiance to the leader of ISIL, Abu Bak’r al-Baghdadi.
ASG Terrorism and their Denial of God
Among the Bangsamoro, (“Moro nation,” a name derived from the Moors of Spain), Islam is a way of life that Arab traders brought to the islands of Mindanao and Sulu in the 13th century. ASG inherited this Muslim legacy. They are faithful to Muslim prayer and religious practices. Most evidently they believe in God and invoke God’s name. Their terrorist activities are done in the name of God and death during acts of terrorism is considered martyrdom.
So how can ASG terrorism be a denial of God? Their behavior and actuations deny God. They are practical atheists.
One reason for this is an inadequate knowledge of the Qur’an.
A kidnap victim, the wife of an American Protestant missionary, told how in her interaction with the ASG she observed their lack of knowledge regarding the Qur’an. Similarly, many Christians do not know the Bible very well.
Another reason is their selective knowledge and understanding of the Qur’an. They do not fully understand the fundamental belief that Islam is a religion of peace and not a religion of external jihad against infidels. They do not fully comprehend the Qur’an as a their divine revelation of compassion and mercy.
As a result they ignore the “Common Word” in the Qur’an, the word of love of God and love of neighbor about which Muslim scholars all over the world wrote to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders as a foundation for peace and harmony.
In their selective interpretation of the Qur’an they reject not only key messages of God’s revelation to them. They in fact also reject the author of revelation, namely God.
One can, therefore, understand why Muslim governments and scholars have denounced ASG atrocities as un-Islamic, a betrayal of true Islam, a distortion of the Qur’an.
Their terroristic activities truly manifest practical atheism. They profess belief in God and are devoted to their prayer but their terroristic and criminal activities in fact say that they reject God and his divine word. Their theistic beliefs are not followed through in practice.
The same is true also for many Christians. While believing in Christ and his teachings, there is a stark dichotomy between belief and practice.
Lessons from Pope Francis
1. Pope Francis has spoken of extremists in various religions. We should not identify extremism with religion itself.
While it is well nigh impossible to dialogue with religious extremists, the path of dialogue remains the path to peace and harmony.
2. We need to overcome the global indifference to bombings in different parts of the world as well as the violent persecution of Christians. We seem to take notice of and denounce bombings by terrorists only when they happen in cities of the developed world.
There seems to be a tragic indifference when they happen in Thailand or Malaysia or Indonesia or the Philippines.
3. For the churches and different religious faiths, the call is for both intra-religious and inter-religious dialogue so that religious beliefs are not distorted and God’s name is not invoked for the sake of violence.
4. The powers of our world have to act in concert to respond to the menace of terrorism. Active solidarity with victims of terrorism is a gift from the God of compassion of mercy. This is the call of the hour for humanity in the face of terrorism.