Christians, Muslims in Mindanao respond to challenges of post-Jolo Cathedral blasts

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 29 January) – The high level of interfaith dialogues in Mindanao is a major factor in ensuring Christians, Muslims and Lumads are able to rise to the challenges they are facing in the post Jolo cathedral bombings, the anger and pain notwithstanding, Christian and Muslim religious leaders said.

Authorities have pointed to the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf as the perpetrators of the January 27 bombings inside and outside the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, Sulu that left 20 persons dead and 112 others injured, the deadliest in the history of church bombings in Mindanao. The IS on the other hand, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters in Jolo last Monday that the bombing was “an attempt to bring this to a religious war” while President Rodrigo Duterte, who flew to Jolo Monday afternoon said only the killers wanted this to happen, referring to ISIS.

“Hindi ito laban ng Joloano pati Kristiyanos … (This is not the fight between Joloanos and Christians), he said, adding “peaceful Joloanos and the Christians continue to live here in peace together.”

He said the problem now is that what is being followed are the ISIS, no longer the ideology espoused by Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front and Al Haj Murad Ebrahim of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte pays his last respects to one of the victims who died during the twin bombings at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, Sulu as he visited Camp Teodulfo Bautista in Jolo on January 28, 2019. KING RODRIGUEZ/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

Pope Francis urged prayers for the victims of the terrorist attack and expressed hope the Lord would “convert the hearts of the violent, and grant the inhabitants of that region a peaceful coexistence.”

Fr. Charlie Inzon, Provincial Superior of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the Philippines, who once served as President of the Notre Dame College of Jolo, said that in the past decades, “our people – Christians, Muslims, and Lumads – have been striving to work together to bring forth harmony, peace, and progress to this land” and “it is our hope that this tragic incident may not be a source of division therefore, but rather a strong reason to build-up a community that is centered on the values of peace, dialogue, friendship, love, and solidarity that transcends religion, culture, or belief.”

Mindanao’s lone Cardinal, Orlando B. Quevedo, OMI, who will officially retire as Archbishop of Cotabato on January 30, made several calls, “given the ISIS affiliation of the suspected perpetrators.”

“Bring them to justice; netizens to provide info towards identifying and arresting them; do not lump Muslims together as likely to become violent radicals; persist in inter-religious dialogue among ordinary people of different faiths; and dialogue with one another. It is the key to peace and harmony,” Quevedo told MindaNews. The Cardinal served as parish priest of Jolo from 1977 to 1979.

Fr. Jonathan Domingo, President of the Notre Dame College of Midsayap in North Cotbato said the gains of the peace process “must not be derailed by violent extremism or terrorism” even as he acknowledged that this will “continue to challenge our vision of just and lasting peace in Mindanao.”

But Domingo is optimistic that “greater collaborative engagements and actions of stakeholders” will “combat spoilers of the peace process.”

“Let us not lose our focus for a promise of peace and development through the new Bangsamoro government. It is one of the ways forward,” he told MindaNews.

Domingo, however, acknowledges that “as long as conflicts and poverty exist in Mindanao, ISIS or Daesh will stay as their Southeast Asian home base, but I guess, dialogues, inter religion and inter-faith engagements that happened before and are still going on now will strengthen our common quest for peace.”

He said he is confident that violent extremism will be isolated “if only majority of Filipinos understand and own the Moro struggles and the historical injustices.”

Inter-religious dialogue

Fr. Roberto Layson, OMI, head of the Inter-Religious Dialogue ministry of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, told MindaNews said that after the cathedral bombing, “the more we need to continue promoting harmony among Muslims and Christians through inter-religious dialogue.”

“The challenge is how to transcend our biases and prejudices,” he said, as he emphasized, “don’t blame everybody for the mistake of some.”

“We, Lumads, Muslims and Christians, must work together to build a peaceful Mindanao despite all challenges that we are still facing,” said Layson, who served as parish priest of Jolo from 1994 to 1997 and who spent at least a decade in Pikit, North Cotabato where he experienced at least five wars between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

A peace dialogue that started morning of April 27, 2018 and ended noon the next day led to the signing of a peace manifesto among Moro and Christian religious leaders as well as leaders of the Moro revolutionary fronts. Among the signatories are (L to R) Hatimil Hassan representing Yusoph Jikiri, chair of the Moro National Liberation Front; Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front; Bishop Noel Pantoja, national director of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches and Mindanao’s lone Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, Archbishop of Cotabato. MindaNews photo by CAROLYN O. ARGUILLAS

The erstwhile warring forces are now partners for peace and RA 11054 or the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the enabling law of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro they signed in March 2014, was proclaimed ratified last January 25, two days before the Jolo bombings.

Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, MILF chair, said the terror attack in Jolo was “a cowardly and evil attempt to extinguish the hope for peace that we have in the newly-ratified” Bangsamoro law.

“This early, the forces of extremism, wherever they may be coming from, are bent to keep us in the cycle of violence, distrust and hatred that we want to put an end to. This dastardly act of killing and hurting civilians and uniformed personnel, as well as desecrating the sanctity of places of worship, might be meant to stoke religious animosity between peoples of different faiths. But we will not allow them to succeed,” Murad said, as he assured the MILF’s commitment to assist in gathering information that could lead to the identification of their perpetrators.

Unite against terrorists

In a statement, Alhag Abdulbaki Aboubakr, Grand Mufti of the Darul Ifta of Region 9 and Palawan said the attack on innocent persons is “a grave sin” and “all Muslims and other faiths alike ought to be united against all those who terrorize the innocents and those who permit the killings.”

The terror acts, he said, run counter to the teaching of Islam. He stressed the “necessity of tracking down the perpetrators … and bringing them to justice to inflict on them the penalty they deserve.”

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) in a statement signed by its President, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao City, said that as a new phase in the peace process begins with the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, “we ask our Christian brethren to join hands with all peace-loving Muslim and Indigenous People communities in the advocacy against violent extremism.”

“May all our religions of peace guide us in our quest for a brighter future for the peoples of Mindanao,” it said.

Archbishop Fernando Capalla, Archbishop Emeritus of Davao and co-convenor of the Bishops-Ulama Conference, described the bombing as “inhuman, anti-interfaith dialogue and anti-peace process.”

The Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) said the bombing was “clearly an attempt by lawless persons to subvert the majority’s will and the sincere desire of the Bangsamoro people for genuine peace, harmony, security and development in Mindanao.”

But the PCEC stressed that the terror act “does not in any way represent any religion or religious community to which the perpetrators may claim to belong.”

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, Sulu, 27 January 2019. Photo courtesy of AFP WEstern Mindanao Command

In support of the Bangsamoro peace process, it called on President Duterte to “defend to the utmost peace and order in Mindanao and our country through the enforcement of the law, and by bringing to justice those responsible for this reprehensible crime.” It also called on leaders of Muslim, Lumad (Indigenous Peoples) and Christian communities to “work together in assuaging fears and prejudices that could arise in their communities from this act done by terrorists, whose ways do not reflect the beliefs and aspirations of the Bangsamoro people.”

It also called on its Evangelical constituents to “pray fervently and implore the Lord’s loving kindness so that genuine peace, justice and harmony will soon befall upon our beloved land.”

Not the last

The International Alert Philippines, a peacebuilding NGO that examines and studies both new and enduring causes and triggers of conflict, said the cathedral bombing “will not be the last tragic event in Muslim Mindanao as the entire region transitions from war to peace and from deprivation to development.”

It noted that the target and the timing of the terror attack shows “a wedge is being driven between Muslims and Christians in Sulu, particularly in the capital city” and perpetrating it at holy mass at the Cathedral on a Sunday “combines insult and injury to the longstanding, robust, and peaceful communion between Muslims and Christians in the island.”

“This is what violent extremism does. It creates fissures where there are none, and fractures inter-community relationships that make it easier to radicalize and recruit. It weaponizes religious and ethnic differences as a tool in destabilizing peace, including the sort of peace that the Bangsamoro organic law can bring,” the IA added.

The IA said the evidence points to the direction that “the Abu Sayyaf Group and its many factions, whether connected to ISIS or not, are the greatest source of instability and continuing violence in the island.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)