Violence Threatens Dialogue in the Philippines

A leading expert in dialogue with Islam in the Philippines has warned that the attacks which killed nearly 60 people will exacerbate religious tensions in a region increasingly infiltrated by fundamentalists.

Father Sebastiano D’Ambra said it was crucial to re-double efforts aimed at inter-faith cooperation in the troubled island of Mindanao after massacres on Monday, November 23rd, claimed the lives of at least 57 people.

Although the killings are widely seen as political, taking place ahead of elections in May, Fr. D’Ambra indicated that they are part of a breakdown in inter-faith relations in an island conscious of unique status within the Philippines as a mainly Muslim region.

The Italian priest’s comments also follow the kidnapping in Mindanao of Irish missionary Fr. Michael Sinnott, who was released earlier in November after a month in captivity.

Fr. D’Ambra is the founder of an inter-faith initiative called the Silsilah Movement and has worked on religious cooperation in the region for almost 30 years. He said that relations with Muslims have declined sharply since the 1960s.

Speaking to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which supports the work of the Silsilah movement, he said, “Religious dialogue today is becoming more and more complicated because of the influence of groups which do not encourage dialogue between Christians and Muslims.”

The priest had come to Europe in order to take part in a conference in Frankfurt, Germany, examining Christianity in Asia. He added: “Before the 1970s, there was a traditional way of living Islam in this region. Relations between Christians and Muslims were quite good, but for many reasons there has been a deterioration.”

Referring to the “infiltration” of extremists, he said, “We have seen the spread of Wahabi [extremist Sunni Islam].”

Also referring to the rise of Muslim insurgency groups including the Abu Sayyaf, he said, “The decline of Muslim-Christian relations is already serious and will get more serious unless the political situation improves, and, in the context of killings like those [on Monday], I do not see that happening soon.”

Fr. D’Ambra did insist that the Silsilah movement and other work towards better Muslim-Christian relations could yet succeed, despite the setbacks.

Set up 25 years ago, the movement creates opportunities for inter-faith cooperation centering on the 14-acre Harmony Village in Zamboanga city, which comprises an institute for religious dialogue, a training center, activities for young people from different religions as well as both a chapel and a mosque.

Fr. D’Ambra wants to expand Silsilah’s work with a media center that will prepare materials for television and radio and promote religious peace initiatives and inter-faith advocacy initiatives aimed at tackling exploitation by employers. One such program involves lobbying to stop a mining company from working in an area that risks cutting off a crucial water supply to villagers.

He said, “The Silsilah movement is working very hard. We have to be convinced of our work for dialogue. If our efforts are to work, they have to be sustainable.”

The priest added, “We have to remember that there are many groups in Mindanao who work for dialogue. Indeed most groups have a peaceful approach.”

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