A groundbreaking formation for catechists and other lay Catholic leaders is to be held on the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines.

Mindanao – which has been plagued by interreligious violence and tension for decades, spearheaded by militant Islamist groups – will host the special formation programme next month, at the island’s Emmaus College of Theology.

The aim of the programme, organised by the Emmaus Movement, is to prepare catechists to better spread and strengthen the faith of Catholic communities, and equip them to engage in interreligious dialogue with the island’s Muslim population.

Father Sebastiano D’Ambra told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which is supporting the programme, that he hopes those who attend will take what they learn back to their own parishes.

He said: “Since we are asking the bishops and priests to select the catechists who will participate in our special course, with the objective of replicating it in their own areas, we are offering it for free.

“This challenges us to present this course in a creative way, and to provide useful material for participants”.

ACN is providing a grant to help fund the course.

The Emmaus Movement was created to not only provide a better grounding in the Catholic Faith – but to also strengthening ties with other religions in the Philippines.

Although the majority on Mindanao are Catholic, the island has a large Islamic community.

Father D’Ambra, an Italian missionary who has spent decades working on Mindanao, said: “Today there is a lot of confusion and discouragement in the Church. Many become Muslims, join other Christian denominations, or completely abandon faith.

“We plan to do a very comprehensive and intensive course that will help participants to be well prepared to be leaders, catechists or teachers of religions”.

Attendees will come from the southern tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula, on the western reaches of Mindanao, where the college is based.

Zamboanga has been hit by bombing campaigns and terrorist attacks causing destruction and resulting in tension between the Christian and Islamic communities.

In December 2023, a bomb exploded killing four people attending Mass in the gymnasium of Mindanao State University, Marawi.

Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur Province, was occupied by Islamic State-linked militants for five months in 2017, resulting in the death of over 1,000 people, and the displacement of 1.1 million.

The Emmaus Movement and the Emmaus College of Theology are initiatives of the Silsilah Movement, which marks the 40th anniversary of its founding in 2024.

Father D’Ambra founded Silsilah, which means “linked chain” in Arabic, with the aim of fostering understanding and peace through interreligious dialogue.

ACN has partnered with the Silsilah movement, supporting its work for more than 20 years.