Mindanao is a place ravaged by the complexity of cultures and religions. Unlike in other regions of the country, Islamic influence permeates in many parts of the island. Marawi, the country’s lone Islamic City, is the most populous area in the ARMM. In the midst of this Islamic city stands the Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora (St. Mary’s Church) which houses the Vicariate of Marawi (established in 1976). Muslims and Christians lived a peaceful co-existence doing about their flourishing trade until the harrowing terrorist attack that devastated the whole city in May 2017. It was in this Islamic City where the seeds of interreligious dialogue, the dialogue of life and faith, were planted and nurtured.
Over in Zamboanga City, an Italian priest, Fr. Sebastian D’Ambra PIME, touched by his experience of conflict between Muslims and Christians in Mindanao, started the Silsilah Dialogue Movement in 1984. Silsilah has continuously promoted harmony, solidarity and peace through formation on interreligious dialogue especially on issues related to Muslim-Christian understanding.
Muslim-Christian dialogue became imperative in Mindanao at the height of the armed struggle and the peace process. In 1996, the Bishop-Ulama Conference was formed with the vision that it could become a catalyst for sustainable peace by initiating dialogues aimed at improving understanding between Muslims and Christians. It was a significant link in the peace process until it lost its steam in 2010.
Interreligious dialogue at the National Capital Region is at its robust stage animated by the UNIHARMONY PARTNERS MANILA (UPM), a group of 22 religious communities and interfaith organizations. Established in 2012, UPM was formed to implement the United Nations General Assembly Resolution (UNGA) 65/5, proclaiming the celebration of the World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW) every 1st week of February. It aims to contribute in attaining a harmonious Philippine Society by advocating interreligious dialogue in its various forms as a mechanism for peace building. It also aims to promote dialogue to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation among peoples of different faiths. Led by the Ministry for Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue of the Archdiocese of Manila, the weeklong celebration of WIHW starts with “Breakfast of the Cardinal with the members of the Diplomatic Corps and representatives of the partner organizations of UPM. Other activities include Youth Camps, Dialogues on Religious and Cultural Experiences, Peace Education, formation seminars on shared values and Prayer services.
Why Interreligious Dialogue?
Pope Francis as the head of the Catholic Church fosters a spirit of dialogue that is held important in the whole of Catholic Tradition. He promotes a dialogue based on the teachings and practices clearly defined in the encyclical “Nostra Aetate” – “The Declaration on
Nostra Aetate” – “The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” proclaimed by St. Pope Paul Vl in 1965.
Nostra Aetate gives us three fundamental reasons why dialogue is essential in the life of the Church. First is the conviction that We All belong to One Human Family – a principle widely shared by religions all over the world. Dialogue is imperative in understanding the various spiritual and faith traditions. We must seek the common ground of shared values among diverse faiths to show that despite diversity we are one human family with the same fundamental aspirations for mutual respect, for acceptance and for living in peace.
The second reason – We are all Gifted with a sense of Spirituality. Every human being has a spiritual sense, a sense of the divine – expressed in different ways according to different faith traditions. Even Non-believers are gifted with this sense as evidenced by recent advances in neural and cognitive science which support the idea that the spiritual or the sacred is fundamental to human experience and flourishing. Spirituality is the entry point of dialogue and through interreligious dialogue, we could share stories on how our experiences on divine love, our spirituality, promotes attitudes that move us to action towards the attainment of shared values such as justice and lasting peace.
The third reason for Interreligious Dialogue is based on the universal principle that We have a Shared Responsibility for the Common Good. Pope Francis believes that our capacity to work together for the common good can come only through compassion and mercy and the ability to empathize with one another, especially those who are in need. So we ask ourselves, what have we done for the hungry and the poor; for the refugees and those internally displaced by conflict? What have we done for peace in the World; for Mother Earth, our common home? We can see that there are plenty of activities where believers of different faiths can work together towards common goals, promote a different way of life and make a positive change in this world.
Interreligious Dialogue and the University of Santo Tomas
The University of Santo Tomas was founded by the Dominicans four centuries ago. Through the years, UST has been bestowed the titles “Pontifical” and “The Catholic University of the Philippines”. As an Institution of Higher Learning, the University’s culture of practice is deeply
influenced by Dominican spirituality as it fulfills its mission of “…serving the Family, the Church and the Country.”
The Dominicans’ primary mission is teaching and preaching. Together with this, Justice and Peace becomes an integral part of its mission as preachers of the Kingdom of God. This can be gleaned from the following Dominican justice and peace mission statement. “How can we remain indifferent when confronted with the suffering of millions of human beings, suffering which is caused by wars, economic crises, or injustices of all kinds? In many provinces and congregations of the Dominican Order, sisters, friars and lay Dominicans live Dominican spirituality in a fraternal way, through preaching which is lived and enlivened by compassion and mercy. The reality and vitality of the fundamental option for justice and peace taken by the whole order is taken in this way.”
UST’s openness to Interreligious Dialogue is a consequence of the Dominican mission for justice and peace. The University is supportive of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue activities oftentimes initiated by its lay Faculty. Most of these activities fall under the category of Dialogue of Common Action, generally in partnership with international organizations such as Religions for Peace and Focolare. These pursuits include peace building through dialogues like those with the MILF Leaders; initiatives that keep us in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, the victims of injustices (Advocacy against human trafficking), Child protection project; those internally displaced by the conflicts in Mindanao through its Psychotrauma Clinic and care for Mother Earth (interfaith youth participation in the National Greening Program of the government).
UST is also featured in milestone gatherings of Ecumenical and Interreligious assemblies. In 2008, the General Assembly of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace (ACRP) on the theme “Peacemaking in Asia” was convened at UST. The Assembly gathered 400 religious leaders of various faith traditions from 19 countries of Asia. In 2011, the Youth Assembly of the Asia-Europe Meeting on Interfaith Dialogue (ASEM) took place at UST. In 2015, the University played host to the visit of Pope Francis and his interreligious encounter with Leaders of different Faiths. It is notable that the lone woman of faith received by the Pope, Dr. Lilian Sison, comes from UST. The 2016 youth camp of the Asia-Pacific Youth Interfaith Network (APYIN) participated in by 80 youth leaders from 15 countries of Asia was hosted by the University. In 2017, the 500 years of Reformation was commemorated in the University with an Ecumenical Symposium. Several intellectual forums and symposia on Muslim-Christian Dialogue which brought in scholars from Iran and Turkey were also held at UST.
Given these achievements, UST, among Educational Institutions, is the most profoundly engaged in interreligious dialogue. Interreligious dialogue has become part of the University’s culture of practice as it fulfills its mission of serving the Church.
Fr. Sebastian D’Ambra, PIME. “Peace-Work in the Tradition and Context of Islamic
Communities” Living Flame – Spirituality of Peace Work, Volume 4 (2019).
Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia. “Interreligious Dialogue: Path to Harmony” Address
given by the Papal Nuncio at the Iran Embassy Manila Cultural Section, 15 October 2018.
Dominican Mission on Justice and Peace. Order of Preachers, www.op.org
retrieved Feb. 5, 2019.
A Science of Spirituality for the 21st Century. Templeton Report 2015.
The Bishop-Ulama Conference. https://www.peaceinsight.org, retrieved Feb. 2, 2017.
Prof. Lilian J. Sison, Ph.D., is the Secretary General of Religions for Peace – Philippines and the Chair of the Asian Women of Faith Network. She is also the Director of the UST Office for International Relations and Programs.