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Fr. Jun Mercado OMI

'A Common Word between Us and You'

November 6, 2009 6:27pm
The second week of October, Amina Rasul and I were in Washington DC to participate in an International Conference that included among others two former Prime Ministers (UK and Norway), Muftis, Ministers and people with right honorable and right reverend before their names.

We were there to bridge the imperatives of the historical document, Common Word, and actions.

It all started two years ago, when 138 Muslim scholars, prominent leaders, and learned men and women wrote a letter entitled “the Common Word between Us and You” addressed to all Christian leaders of the world.

The letter‘s title echoes a Quranic chapter with the same title.

It attempts to retrieve the prophetic exhortation in the midst of the vast gap and differences between Muslims and followers of the others books, specifically the Christians.

The love of God and the love of neighbors are the two unifying teachings of Islam and Christianity. These two great commandments should characterize the relationship between Muslims and Christians.

Yet, through the centuries, war, prejudices, discrimination, and intolerance have marred the relations between Islam and Christianity.

The letter echoes the refreshing spirit of the second Vatican Ecumenical Council that exhorts all to forget and forgive each other and become partners as we journey forward in shaping a new world.

In the Philippines, particularly in the South, the interreligious gap and misunderstanding has a long history.

It dates back from the period of colonialism when the Philippines was annexed by Spain in the 16th century and later by the US at the turn of the 1900.

The period during the American period was also characterized by war, only this time, by military victory that put an end to the once powerful Sultanates in Mindanao and their annexation to the Philippines.

This annexation paved the way for the programs of pacification and assimilation which included among others the opening of Mindanao for migration from the Luzon and the Visayas.

These historical facts have given rise to three significant realities that continue to haunt Muslim-Christian relations in the Philippines, even today. To wit:

1. The lingering suspicion and lack of trust that continue to characterize the relations between Christians and Muslims;

2. The sense of injustice on the part of the Bangsamoro and the Indigenous peoples for their lost ancestral domain. After years of migration, they have found themselves a minority in their traditional homeland. The Muslims are now majority only in five provinces out of the 24 in Mindanao; and

3. Poverty and neglect that led to, among others, the highest in mortality, illiteracy rate, lowest in access to basic services, especially health and education.

This context calls for an urgent new interface of Christianity and Islam in the Philippines.

The ‘interface’ or ‘dialogue’ would distance the face of our faith traditions from the stereotypes of rebels/terrorists, on the one hand and oppressors and the government troops as army of occupation, on the other.

In the early 70’s, Christians and Muslims of goodwill, specifically bishops, ‘ulama, priest and lay leaders stood for justice and respect for human rights even during the height of battles between the Philippine regular army and the Moro National liberation Front.

The provinces of Cotabato and Sulu, the lands of many battles, have witnessed examples of solidarity of people of goodwill from Christianity and Islam who continued to stand for justice and human rights.

The first association of Christian-Muslim Religious Leaders in Mindanao began in 1973 few months after the declaration of Martial law.

Then following the Peace Agreement in 1976, a more formal national conference involving leaders of Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims began to address the problems of the South and to bring these issues to the attention of the national government.

Again, following the 1996 Final Peace between the Philippine Government and the Moro national Liberation, the Bishop-Ulama Forum was formed to support the peace process in the Southern Philippines and the implementation of the said accord.

Interreligious dialogue has a particular and peculiar history in the Philippines both in the local and national level given the situation of the war in Southern Philippines.

In this light, the ‘Common Word’ becomes an invitation to all people of goodwill to set aside the prejudices and hostilities of the past and venture into anew relationship based on the love of God and love of neighbor.

I wish to echo the late Pope John Paul II’s message in Damascus at the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, 6 May 2001.

“It is my ardent hope that Muslim and Christian religious leaders and teachers will present our two great religious communities as COMMUNITIES IN RESPECTFUL DIALOGUE, NEVER MORE AS COMMUNITIES IN CONFLICT.

“It is crucial for the young to be taught the ways of respect and understanding, so that they will not be led to misuse religion itself to promote or justify hatred and violence. Violence destroys the image of the Creator in his creatures, and should never be considered as the fruit of religious conviction.”

In the letter, the ‘Common Word’, the Quranic verse on tolerance is quoted: “Had God willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works. “Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ” (Al-Ma’idah, S. 5:48).

In time, this letter can create an opening and a greater convergence on the more delicate issues of religious freedom, the absolute value of human rights, the relationship between religions and society and the use of violence.

These are the current issues that worry all believers in our world today.