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Religion and Society

Young voices for peace and dialogue in Mindanao

Sebastiano D''Ambra

In June, July and August of this year the Silsilah Dialogue Movement invited young Muslims and Christians to dream together about future peace in Mindanao at meetings held in Jolo, Basilan and Zamboanga, which constitute one of three hot fronts in the Mindanao conflict. The three important meetings culminated in a conference in Zamboanga City that brought together about 120 delegates from the three aforementioned areas.


The young people who took part in the first-class meetings expressed spoke with passion and determination. Local leaders who had been invited to these venues listened to what these youths had to say "as an urgent concern for our times."


The Jolo symposium was held at Bishop Ben's Hall on 29 June. Jolo is a troubled land where the army and rebels attack each other, where abductions and other forms of violence are daily occurrences. It is also an Abu Sayyaf stronghold, a terrorist group considered close to other international terror organisations like al-Qaeda. Its population is overwhelmingly Muslim (98 per cent) but it is also home to a tiny Christian community. Here Silsilah is actively present through Silsilah Forum and a centre open to all, especially young people.


In his message to the symposium's young participants a representative of Jolo mayor stressed the importance of their voice. After listening to what they had to say and delivering the mayor's message he concluded saying: "Your activities today must be encouraged. You have an important role to play in achieving peace. The fact is that peace can never be reached by force; it can only come by mutual agreement."


On 13 July Basilan welcomed another symposium organised by Silsilah. Basilan is a land rich in natural resources with wonderful beaches. Muslims constitute a majority of the population (60 per cent) but Christians are a sizable minority (40 per cent). Here too tension is palpable with conflict taking many forms. Various rebel groups and an Abu Sayyaf cell operate in the area.


In an odd development Christians in Basilan have recently come under threat from a group that wants them either to convert to Islam or pay a tax if they do not convert to Islam. We know that this is a form of psychological warfare designed to frighten Christians. Indeed it has caused fear and sowed divisions. Even Basilan's Catholic bishop has received a threatening letter. Despite everything though, there are many good people among local Christians and Muslims. And in this context the voice of young people heard at the Silsilah symposium is a sign of hope for peace.


Fatima Pir T. Allian, a well-respected Muslim woman who is the co-director of Silsilah's social communication centre for dialogue and peace, told her young audience, especially young Muslims, that "our religious leaders have urged us to get involved in dialogue. The letter by 138 Muslim scholars from various nations encourages us to promote inter-faith dialogue. So don't be afraid!"


In Zamboanga City the symposium was held at the Silsilah Center on 2 August. About 60 per cent of the city's more than 700,000 residents are Catholic; another 35 per cent are Muslim and the remaining 5 per cent includes Protestants, Buddhists and other ethnic groups.


Young participants expressed their "dreams and aspirations" in various study groups. They especially reiterated their commitment to change society's prevailing culture of apathy, something which many young people exhibit as well. They plan to do this by being more actively involved in their society so that their voice can be heard.


During the discussions the role of mass media was highlighted. Too often they are divisive and the source of conflict rather than tools for the promotion of dialogue and peace. Here young Muslims and Christians reiterated their commitment to work together for peace by proposing concrete steps by which they can reach this goal.


The big conference with representatives from the previous symposia in Jolo, Basilan and Zamboanga City was held in Harmony Village, Silsilah's central headquarters, also in Zamboanga City.


It was a great summit of hope and friendship that gave young people an opportunity to look at the delicate situation in Mindanao. Here the peace process between the government and a rebel group (MILF) has collapsed. Sadly the result has been more violence fuelled by new and old prejudices that Christians and Muslims have about each other.


The summit ended with a statement by which participants committed themselves to promoting a culture of dialogue as a way towards peace. In order to reach this goal they pledged to:


1. consolidate their relationship to God;


2. become models of dialogue and an example for other young people, so as to bring the message of dialogue and peace to their families and society;


3. become actively involved in inter-faith dialogue, bringing this dialogue to their communities and home regions.


It is not easy to talk about dialogue and peace in a situation like the one we face in Mindanao, where many civilians are preparing themselves for the worse by buying weapons for self-defence. So many people still believe in the old principle that if you want peace prepare for war.


Yet young people have come to realise that the real 'war' they must fight is that of friendship and dialogue. It will not be easy for them to continue believing in the type of dialogue and peace Silsilah has promoted knowing that at home other points of view are heard. Even so it is clear that they are still willing to pursue a dream of future peace in which they will play an important role even if they have to go against the flow.


Silsilah stands by them, talking about peace built on love, justice, solidarity and harmony. As one of our challenges, we must remain close to young people, not only now that the winds of war are blowing across Mindanao, but at all times because dialogue is a journey of the spirit that takes us from God to God in the various stages of our life and that of the society in which we live.