PHILIPPINES – “We are baptised but not evangelised” – interview with Reinhard Backes
Post-trip interview with Head of Section Reinhard Backes by Maria Lozano
– Trip to the Philippines 20th October to 1st November
What was your general impression of the country?
This is a wonderful country, very young and dynamic. According to official figures there are over 100 million people in the Philippines and there are another 10 million Filipinos living abroad. Over a third of them are younger than 15 years old.
The Philippines is an overwhelmingly Christian and Catholic country, the only such country in Asia. Yet again and again during our trip people told us „We are baptized but not evangelised.” Hence education is an urgent necessity and is consequently treated as a priority in the project work of ACN.
Our journey took us from Manila to Zamboanga on the island of Mindanao in the south, and also to Tacloban and Palo on the island of Leyte in the east of the Philippines. Leyte was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan – or Yolanda – in 2013. ACN has been helping with the rebuilding there.
A very controversial issue at the present time is the problem of drugs, and the government policy to tackle it in the Philippines. The Church is very concerned, because the government is focusing above all on outlawing and forcible measures.
What is the greatest concern for the Church regarding the Philippines?
As I said, the Church is concerned for the education of the faithful, both religious and scholastic. The people are deeply religious, but poorly educated. To give one example, in January 2016 I was in Gerona on the island of Luzon at a wedding. To my surprise, 10 couples were married at the same time, and all of them brought their children with them to the wedding. There were quite a few of them. It was explained to me that many couples live together before marriage and only marry later, partly because they do not have the money, but also owing to a lack of understanding of the Faith. Consequently the priests often prepare several couples for marriage at the same time and celebrate the weddings at the same time also – not least in order to save on costs.
What impressed you most on this trip?
I was very impressed by the work of the Silsilah dialogue movement on Mindanao, where the fighting over the past four decades between government forces and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNFL) has cost the lives of around 120,000 people. ACN has long been supporting this initiative by Fr Sebastiano D’Ambra, an Italian priest from Sicily, and Minda Sano, a Filipina woman who herself comes from Mindanao. “Silsilah“ is an Arabic word for “chain“, “link“, “connection“, and the movement has been working for 40 years to promote dialogue between the various religious and ethnic groups, to educate teachers, strive for social justice, help refugees and establish schools – to mention some of its more important areas of activity.
Roughly 60% of the population of Mindanao are Christians, while 40% are Muslims. However, on the island of Basilan to the south of Zamboanga, over 70% are Muslims and still further to the south-west, well over 90% of the population are Muslims. This is where the extremist group „Abu Sayyaf“ („swordfighters“) is active, launching attacks and abducting people in order to extract money through ransom demands. In the past there have been repeated assassinations of priests, religious and ordinary faithful. However, the Silsilah movement has never allowed itself to be intimidated by the violence. That is truly admirable!
During our most recent visit there Minda Sano took us to see some of the refugee camps that have been set up since the besieging of Zamboanga by sections of the MNFL. At the time, in September 2013, the fighting with the army continued for three weeks. It was a bitter setback, but the Silsilah movement persisted nonetheless. Such courageous determination is exemplary. Again and again its representatives encourage Muslims and Christians to come together and talk, building up trust and caring for the suffering victims on both sides.
Can you tell us about any interesting encounters you had on your trip?
The Filipinos are a very warm hearted and hospitable people. They love to laugh, are joyful and also loud. One interesting incident was the following: in Manila I got to know a group of young people, consisting of eight young students from the University of Manila. They were Christians. The questions that concerned them, the interests they shared were virtually identical with those of another group of young Filipinos, all of them also round about the age of 20, whom I met on the ferry from Isabela on the island of Basilanto Zamboanga. Except these young men were all Muslims. Obviously young people all have very similar concerns, desires and hopes. The religious differences are less significant. That at least was my assessment.
What is the next major project of ACN in the Philippines?
An estimated 10,000 people died as a result of typhoon Yolanda on the island of Leyte in 2013. There was widespread destruction, including many churches and also the seminary in the archdiocese of Palo. This was a one-storey building not far from the coast, which was totally devastated. ACN has already helped the archdiocese to rebuild 10 churches. Now Archbishop John Forrosuelo Du has asked us to help with rebuilding the seminary as well. The work has already begun in fact, and the first seminarians are already living in the half finished complex. They are now building a massive multi-storey building that it is hoped will resist future natural disasters.