FIELDS OF HOPE: Inter-religious dialogue and peace-building: story of the Chuch in Pikit

Pikit Parish is situated right at the heart of an armed rebellion being waged by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.  The Christians are a minority, comprising only 35% of the total population. The Moro Front has maintained a camp in the interior villages of the town.

Constant war, sporadic peace

From 1997 to 2003, the people of this town have experienced four major armed confrontations between government troops and MILF forces that resulted to massive evacuations of civilians, most of whom were Muslims. Not only that, war has always been very divisive and its corrosive effect on the relationship of people is even more damaging than the physical destruction.  In war, even the civilians take sides – the Christians with the military and the Muslims with the rebels.  And so, even after the war is over in the battlefields, the silent war goes on in the hearts of the people of Mindanao. 

The awakening of the church

The all-out-war in 2000 which displaced over a million civilians in Mindanao brought the church in Pikit through a painful process of soul searching. The parish, which was very exclusive at that time, was divided whether or not to extend humanitarian assistance to Muslim evacuees who were mainly families of rebels and whom the Christians considered as their enemies. It was only after a passionate debate among council members that the parish decided to break the walls of apathy and mediocrity remembering the command of Jesus in the Gospel that tells them to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and the exhortation of Jesus that “whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do it unto me.” (Mt.25:31-46)

Helping the poor is not a matter of choice

The parish then organized the Disaster Response Team (DRT) composed mainly of young Muslim and Christian volunteers.  Whether under the scorching heat of the sun or the pouring rain and amidst bullet fires, these young volunteers distributed food to thousands of starving evacuees in various evacuation centers -Muslims, Lumads and Christians alike- demolishing the myth that the war in Mindanao is religious in nature. They would eat together on the same table, pray together and even cry together when they hear that another baby had died in the evacuation center. 

The parish soon realized that helping the poor is not a matter of choice.  For us Christians, it is a duty and a social responsibility. After all, when you hear the cries of mothers and children weeping in the night, you don’t anymore ask whether they are Muslims or Christians.

Compassion breaks down cultural and religious boundaries

In 2003 war, hundreds of Muslim and Christian evacuees have sought refuge at the parish church and made the parish gymnasium their temporary home. When the moon was bright, Muslim and Christian kids would play together at the parish ground before the eyes of the adults who squat around the corners. At least for a moment, the curse of war is forgotten. I remember that day when they were returning to their places of origin after six months. The Muslim evacuees were all teary eyed – men, women and children- as they bid us goodbye.  I guess the simple act of compassion shown by the church had somehow corrected misconceptions and broken down cultural and religious boundaries that for many years had divided this small town.

An evolving context requires a new vision, one that is inclusive

A new context was evolving, therefore, a new vision was required – one that responds to the demands of the times.  To imagine that vision, the church initiated series of consultations in the different districts and BECs for the purpose of changing the vision-mission of the parish. After almost one year of consultation, church leaders during the assembly revised their vision-mission. As expected, the new one was an inclusive vision that integrated two very important elements based in the context of the changing realities in Mindanao and in the world. One was Inter-religious Dialogue and the other was Peace-building.  This new vision-mission is now guiding the parish direction in fulfilling her mission in the town of Pikit The parish has henceforth created a special ministry with full-time staff members composed of Muslims and Christians who implement Dialogue and Peace-building activities at the parish and grassroots levels.

Building bridges rather than walls

Since then, the parish has been conducting seminars on the Cultures of Peace and Dialogue.  These seminars, which normally last for three days, are participated by Muslims, Christians and Indigenous people. The main objective of the seminar is basically to restore the broken relationship and to let the participants realize that it is possible for Christians, Muslims and indigenous tribes to work together for peace and reconciliation even as a lot of people in Mindanao believe it otherwise. The same seminars have also been conducted to members of the military and paramilitary troops, teachers, local government officials, government line agencies and the youth.

The parish also leads the annual celebration of the Mindanao Week of Peace in Pikit where different sectors including the local government unit and the military participate in various activities during the week-long celebration.

Reconciliation means healing the past

Perhaps, the most important part of the seminar is the healing process where the participants sit in a circle in a victim-offender setting and where each participant is given the chance to speak his or her painful experience of the past while the rest listens with empathy.  The process is usually highly charged with emotion.  In this session, one gets to realize that he or she does not have the monopoly of pain.  Then, the whole process ends up with the participants hugging each other in reconciliation and making peace with one another.

Creating Spaces for Peace

As part of rebuilding the communities affected by the wars, the parish has organized several villages inhabited by Muslims, Christians and indigenous people. Representatives of the parish, village leaders along with local Muslim peace advocates negotiated with the military and MILF not to make these villages as battleground of their forces. Instead of driving the combatants away, we made them as partners believing that no one has the monopoly of goodness. In these villages, several socio-economic projects and peace-building activities were implemented in order to address the visible and invisible effects of war. These communities are now called “Space for Peace and Children as Zones of Peace” communities.

Last Holy month of Ramadhan, I brought a journalist to one of these villages.  The village leader told us that the Interfaith Council that we organized three years ago is still active and that the members still meet every month.  He said that last Eid’l Fitre the Muslims and Christians contributed food. They placed the food on a long table and they joyfully ate together with their bare hands- Muslims and Christians, men and women, children and adults. 

Dialogue as a way of life

The seed of reconciliation has been sown and it seems it continues to grow bit by bit.  The process is slow but it brings hope and a lot of surprises. Where before you don’t see a Muslim coming to the parish compound, now you see them come. It is no longer a private space for Christians alone but a public space. Muslim kids selling corn and peanuts freely come without fear. Some Muslim friends would sometimes come to the convent and share meals with the priests. During the meals, sometimes they would lead the prayer at other times, the priests do.

During Muslim weddings, there are also Christians who stand as sponsors. At the same time, during Christian weddings, there are also Muslims who stand as sponsors.  In one wedding at the parish church, I was surprised to see three bridesmaids wearing ‘tundung’ or headdress.  I found out later that they were Muslims and that they were classmates of the bride in high school.  I also stood as a sponsor in two Muslim weddings.

During patronal fiestas, the parish usually receives Muslim visitors in the convent and the parish prepares ‘halal’ food for them. Likewise, during their religious celebrations such as Ramadhan, Christians also go around visiting their Muslim friends to show their solidarity with them.

Every summer, the parish youth ministry holds a month-long sports and cultural fest. Aware of the new vision-mission of the parish, for the last three years the youth leaders have opened the event to Muslim and Protestant youth as well, many of them their neighbors, classmates and friends. 

Challenge to religious leaders

Pikit parish is reaching out to the different parishes in the archdiocese conducting intra-religious dialogue among priests and lay leaders first and then inter-religious dialogue and culture of peace seminars among Muslims, Christians and Indigenous people second.

Dialogue is not just the work of one or two experts in Islam.  It is an “integral part of the evangelizing mission of the Church.” (Redemptoris Missio) Hence, it must be the local church, our Basic Ecclesial Communities, that must be in the forefront of this dialogue work of the Church.

In saying this, I would like to point out that religious leaders play a very important role in this work. However, there are some of us who, without the knowing it, have become part of the problem by re-enforcing thick walls of division rather than part of the solution by building bridges of reconciliation.                          

The challenge for churches is not so much to build their own kingdom but to build the kingdom of God. To realize this, churches must recommit to the Gospel and be ready to become instruments of God’s goodness to every human being regardless of who they are.

Planting the seed

Grassroots peace-building is like building blocks.  You don’t put the blocks on top.  You start from the bottom up. In Pikit, we continue to plant the seed of goodness not even knowing if and when it is going to grow. But we trust in God’s Providence that whatever goodness we have planted will blossom only in goodness and that goodness alone will remain in the end.

(Fr. Roberto C. Layson writes a column, “Fields of Hope”, for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Father Layson is former parish priest of Pikit, North Cotabato and presently the coordinator of the Oblates of Mary Immaculates' Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is the 2004 Ninoy Aquino Fellow for public service.)