SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Planting seeds of peace amidst fear and despair

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 20 Oct) – These are still times of fear and despair among the ordinary folks living in the various barangays in the island of Basilan and its islets. But as was manifested during two Intra-Faith Gatherings of priests and lay people held at the Formation Center in Isabela City last Tuesday, 18 October 2016, church-based peace advocates continue to plant seeds of peace. Although they are first to claim that it may not be during their own lifetimes that the fruits of these peacebuilding and inter-religious dialogue (IRD) efforts could be harvested, still they hope that in the future peace will reign in this beautiful spot in southern Philippines.

Organized by the Inter-Faith office of the Prelature of Isabela and the Social Action Center headed by Fr. Franklin Floyd Costan and his lay co-workers Joel and January Zanoria with full support of their outgoing Ordinary, Bishop Martin S. Jumoad (who will be installed as Archbishop of Ozamiz in 30 November 2016), it brought together a dozen of the diocesan clergy and Claretian missionaries in the morning and around 70 lay people from the various parishes of the Prelature in the afternoon. The Davao-based Catholic Relief Services through Ms. Deng Giguiento sponsored this event.

Since the time of the late Bishop Jose Ma. Querexeta, the legendary Bishop of the Prelature very well loved by his flock and still remembered fondly by those who had known him until today, the IRD program of the Prelature has had its ups and downs. The 10 parishes constituting the Prelature – Tumahubong, Lamitan, Begang, Sta. Clara, Maluso, Matarling, Taira, Looc, Kabunbata and Isabela – have struggled through the years to get the IRD program going. It was flourishing around the early years when troubles in Basilan were still few and far between.

But when violence erupted sporadically in various parts of the island and then reached feverish levels – not just dislocating entire communities who had to evacuate their homes to safer grounds but also the kidnapping of peoples and outright killings of civilians – the instability of the situation pushed the IRD efforts to the margins. This was especially true in the wake of the killing of Fr. Rhoel Gallardo CMF, a young Claretian priest assigned in Tumahubong on 3 May 2011. Forty-four days after being held captive, Fr. Rhoel lay dead with bullet wounds on the head and bleeding toes. A male and two female teachers were also killed during the melee which ensued.

After this tragic incident, the troubles have continued unabated with the military and the rebels exchanging gunfire even in populous barangays. Recently, there was even a siege in the big town of Lamitan. Ambushes continue to take place making travel around the island very unsafe. When the separatist rebels became the dreaded Abu Sayyaf, the situation has gone from bad to worse. And the violence have become more gruesome with the beheading of some of the Abu Sayyaf’s hostages.

In such troubled times, very few would be attracted to join IRD activities for various reasons. The main reason, of course, is that the priority attention would be focused on survival, finding the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter, as well as being out of harm’s way. But the eruption of troubles would led to migrant settlers pointing their fingers to the “Moros” as the cause of their misfortune. Long-held biases and prejudices against Muslims have deepened through these tumultuous years of conflict and outright war. Where decades ago, Christian migrants settlers and Yakan, Tausog and Sama neighbors could peacefully live together as neighbors, the wars have made both sides be suspicious of each other; as the level of trust skidded down.

Stories after stories that one hears from those who have survived the dislocations and militarization are mainly lamentations as to the impact of these troubles on their lives. The few who have the capacity to transfer to other safe places have moved out of the island, or at least moved to safer places in the island as in Isabela. But most of the citizens do not have that capacity; here is where they have their livelihood, where their homes were built, where their children go to school. They could not afford to uproot their families. So despite fear, anxieties, insecurities, they continue to reside in the various places across the island of Basilan and desperately pray that they be spared from tragic happenings.

There have been many innocent lives lost as the unfortunate ones are caught in the crossfire. There are those who are threatened harm if they do not go “balik-Islam”. Some migrant farmers cultivating a piece of land bought earlier and had titles were confronted by those who claimed they were the previous owners of the land going back to their ancestors and demanded that the titles be surrendered to them. A public school teacher was warned by one of his students that some of their elders were going to kidnap him; only the threat that no more teachers would ever teach in their barangay stopped them from kidnapping him.

All these dampen the parishioners’ interest to be engaged in IRD. A few think it is a hopeless ministry. Those who have had some involvements lament that after so many years of reaching out to dialogue with the Muslims, peace remains elusive. Naturally, those whose kin have been killed or suffered heavily owing to the troubles are the first to oppose the value of the IRD ministry. There are also those who claim that it is only the Christians who are doing anything by way of inter-faith dialogue; the Muslims are hardly interested in doing dialogue.

Joel Zanoria, who also works at the Bureau of Jail, posits that IRD is one of the most difficult ministry to be engaged in. The deep-seated biases on both sides hinder the efforts to promote dialogue; only a miniscule among the members of the BECs would find the time and energy to do IRD. Joel can understand why as he himself suffered through a family tragedy; his father-in-law was killed by a Moro. However, he tells those who come to IRD sessions that he has not allowed this tragedy to get in the way of his commitment to IRD. Even inside the city jail in Isabela, he is promoting IRD among the inmates.

Even the clergy – who are supposed to lead the people in response to the challenge of the Popes and bishops to be engaged in IRD, being a constitutive element of preaching the Good news in a multi-faith setting – are not immune to the impact of personal pain and fear. Some of them have been on the verge of giving up on IRD, deciding that efforts in IRD are just a waste of time since nothing can come out of it. Some of their own BEC and parish lay leaders have echoed the same sentiment, being highly influenced by their pastors. In fact, there had arisen a suggestion to delete the IRD from to the Prelature’s Vision-Mission statement.

This is the context for the gathering on 18 October for the clergy and the lay leaders to once more revisit the rationale of the IRD as a priority ministry of the Prelature so that everyone can help crystallize what sort of IRD is required in the Prelature. In doing so, those who participated were actually undergoing an intra-faith dialogue among themselves. (Some of course wished that the Muslims too will do their own intra-faith dialogue that could then push many of them to become dialogue partners.)

When the CRS staff asked me to facilitate these sessions, I did not have any second thought in accepting the invitation. I had wanted to return to Basilan where I had happy memories during the time of Bishop Querexeta and the young Claretians working with him in the 1970s until the early 1980s. I had wanted to work there full-time; unfortunately, that did not come to pass. I didn’t know if my presence would help re-energize the clergy and the lay to once more embrace passionately the IRD pastoral thrust; but one could try but fully backed up with prayers.

The process I undertook involved various stages: a) To assure them that I truly understood their confusion and hesitation to be fully engaged in IRD as I listened to their stories of fear and despair, b) To journey with them but also challenge them in processing their own traumas having experienced so much tragic incidents in the long years of violence in this island, c) To bring them into a better understanding as to the roots of their biases and prejudices (by providing a historico-anthropological perspective of the Mindanao narrative), d) to reflect once more on biblical and theological underpinnings of the IRD and e) to affirm them in the little everyday efforts they have made that truly are aspects of dialogue.

The approach seemed to have softened their minds and hearts and made them once more able to embrace the Church’s challenge to engage in IRD. However, I reminded them that they will continue to experience the highs and lows of IRD but that they should never give up even if the efforts seem so insignificant. There is a high level of optimism as they perceive President Duterte’s vision of bringing peace in Mindanao, and Basilan in particular. Since being inaugurated as President he has visited Basilan three times already; his promise to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf gives the people hope. They pray that the violent threat of terrorism will finally vanish in this place. One can only hope and pray that President Duterte will succeed where previous Presidents failed in responding to the people’s seemingly impossible dream.

Indeed, when all is said and done, all that the people have is their faith and their prayers. But as they dream of a peace that lasts, they are convinced that theirs is the responsibility to be like St. Francis of Assisi – to be become instrument of peace, where there is hatred to sow love.

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations” and two books on Davao history launched in December 2015. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]