“My destroyed cathedral can wait… We must first rebuild inter-faith relations”

A Bishop in the Philippines, whose cathedral and the home was destroyed by extremists, has stated that his top priority is to rebuild inter-faith relations and bring healing to his traumatised people. Bishop de la Peña said he does not see rebuilding the cathedral as a priority when asked about his thoughts on how Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) can help his Prelature.

 “The reason d’être of the prelature has always been to establish a dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Marawi has always been the showcase of inter-religious harmony here in the Philippines,” the Bishop said. 

Before the war, the Catholic Church in Malawi has made quiet but significant strides in establishing strong ties with the Muslim community. Among the Prelature’s initiatives include renaming the Basic Ecclesial Communities to Basic Human Communities to accommodate Muslim membership in Prelature’s community activities. Bishop de la Peña has also invited several Muslims to the Bishop’s Council.

While it is true that the war in Marawi has caused a lot of pain and loss, the Bishop believes it is also important to point out that the conflict has unwittingly revealed some of the gains of the inter-religious dialogue embarked upon by the 17-year old prelature. 

To prove his point, the Bishop enumerated how some Muslims sheltered Christians during the siege. Some even taught their Christian neighbours how to recite a Muslim prayer in case they get accosted by terrorists. On the other hand, Christians welcomed and provided emergency relief to the internally-displaced Muslims in adjacent Christian-majority provinces. 

Before the establishment of the Prelature, Christians and Muslims in Mindanao were engaged in bitter conflict over political and economic disputes. Back then, the Muslims viewed Christian settlers as foreign invaders and land-grabbers.  On the other hand, Christians looked down on Muslim minority and many have generalized the latter as barbaric terrorists. 

“The spontaneous expression of compassion during the war shows we were able to overcome these deep-seated biases,” the Bishop remarked. 

ACN Secretary General Philipp Ozores, who visited the cleared towns of Marawi last week, confirms the significance of the Prelature’s work.

“The perception of young Muslims is changing through the work of Bishop de la Peña. We would like to keep supporting the mission of the Prelature,” said Ozores in an interview.

However, despite these inspiring accounts, the Bishop believes emerging threats will add to the existing hurdles facing the mission in Marawi.

For one, the Bishop believes that even though the ISIS-inspired forces have lost the war, other terrorist groups have learned from the Marawi siege that the best way to prolong an armed battle with the government is to get as many hostages as possible, especially Catholic priests and nuns.

Asked about the implications of this strategy, the Bishop merely shrugged. “We cannot afford security escorts. We just have to be very careful.” 

Another serious threat to peace is the culture of tribal wars that could break out among the local clans once the residents realise the extent of damage that has happened to their hometown. The Bishop fears some might seek revenge against the families that cooperated with the terrorists. 

Finally, there is also the resentment of the Muslim community towards the Philippine military as there is a perception among Muslims that it was the air strikes that caused the most substantial damage to the city. Filipino Muslims are also still harbouring deep-seated resentment coming from a history of government repression when thousands among them were tortured and killed by the Philippine Armed Forces during the Martial Law era in the 70s. Today, Marawi is once again under Martial Law as a result of the siege and the Philippine president has not committed to its lifting despite the conclusion of the battle. 

Josemaria E. Claro   – ACN Philippines