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When Interfaith Activists Face Violence

By Marites Guingona Africa

In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Ansari, known as Willy, one of our Muslim members being trained in peacebuilding in the Tala community of Caloocan City in Metro Manila, was shot dead while playing pool by the roadside one day. Fear struck the hearts of everyone, and we did not know how to carry on. ‘Something bigger’ than our selves prevailed. This is my story.

My interfaith peacebuilding journey has been about awakening and responding to my Christian faith’s call to “love my neighbor as myself,” transcending my fears and reaching beyond my comfort zone and the familiar safety of the Church I grew up in. It was a long, painstaking journey, learning to make space within myself for “others” who do not share my faith to live in me, and for me to experience God’s goodness in them.

I was raised a Catholic in Mindanao, the southern region of the Philippines. Mindanao is where outbreaks of violence between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and government troops have been going on for decades. But it was not until I moved to Metro Manila for college in the mid-seventies that I became aware of the conflict there between Muslims and Christians. I heard about the violence but had no way to respond until I became actively involved in interfaith dialogue and relationship-building.

It did not happen overnight. Entering into the field of interfaith dialogue and relationship-building is a story in itself. But I knew I was in when I found myself in mutually respectful and collaborative relationships with people of other faiths. These were people I did not know were there until I went looking for them, made friends with them, and felt humbled by the experience.

 An early photo of the Muslim-Christian Peacemakers Association in Tala.

An early photo of the Muslim-Christian Peacemakers Association in Tala.

In 2001, a group of newfound friends and I formed The Peacemakers’ Circle Foundation, a non-profit Manila-based interfaith organization aimed at promoting dialogue for interfaith peacemaking and relationship-building. Three years later, as our efforts gained recognition and support, we decided to help address the pressing challenges to peace in grassroots communities where Muslims and Christians live alongside each other as neighbors.

The Office on Muslim Affairs told us in 2003 that 1.5 million Muslims lived in Metro Manila. Many left their southern homeland to seek better lives for themselves and their families. But in the metropolis life was no less difficult. They struggle to survive against the prevailing attitudes of prejudice and discrimination from a predominantly Christian populace. It dawned on me that I did not have to be in Mindanao to help the people of Mindanao.

In Manila’s local communities, we discovered how fear and mistrust prevails between Muslims and Christians. It did not make the news, but violence was an everyday occurrence.

The first neighborhood we engaged was Tala, in Caloocan City, a northern section of Metro Manila. In 2003, it was an emerging community of around 5,000 Muslim and Christian families struggling to survive in the midst of poverty. We did not know then that it was also a community notorious for its violence or that it was called the “drug trafficking capital” of Caloocan.

 At a trust-building activity, Antonio, a Christian, guides Faisal, the blind-folded Muslim, around the community.

At a trust-building activity, Antonio, a Christian, guides Faisal, the blind-folded Muslim, around the community.

Six months later, after beginning to create bonds of friendship with local leaders, we learned about the violence. Drivers of tricycles and other public utility vehicles would refuse to transport passengers to and from the area, fearing for their lives. Gun shots could be heard almost every day, in broad daylight. Dead bodies would be found lying in the plaza or on a roadside.

Finally the full realization of what it meant to be a “peacemaker” dawned on us. Looking at each other, we assured ourselves that it made no sense to call ourselves peacemakers if we could not be in conflicted places where peacemaking is most needed! So, armed with our noble ideals and visions of peace, we moved forward.

The process was difficult – building relationships of mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation; conducting weekly dialogue circles in the community; offering training workshops on interfaith dialogue, conflict transformation, and peacebuilding every month. A small group of 30 Muslims and Christians overcame their fears and agreed to gather regularly in the hope of making something better of their lives.

 A fear management workshop was organized after Willy was murdered

A fear management workshop was organized after Willy was murdered

The meetings went well until Willy was shot and killed. This challenged our resolve. Fearful, we met inside people’s homes, out of the public eye. Yet something inside us that was bigger than ourselves prevailed. Day by day, month by month, we were able to move our team away from the violence and past our fears. It gave us clarity of vision, depth of conviction, and integrity of co-creative action.

Clarity of vision enabled us to see the reality we hoped for but which had yet to be attained in the community. This shared vision expressed by everyone — Muslim and Christian alike — was what everyone desired for themselves and their loved ones. Together they drew a big picture of the community that they wished to see, with all the little parts that belonged to it, and they each found themselves in it. Co-owning the vision fueled their conviction to carry on and realize it together. They rose above their fears, united, and responded in faith to the challenge to free Tala from the cycles of violence that have cursed it for so long.

 Christian-Muslim friendship-making in Tala.

Christian-Muslim friendship-making in Tala.

They engaged in co-creative action, pairing Muslims and Christians with each other and calling the practice Bantay Kapatiran, ‘watching over my brother/sister.’ They worked together, building relationships through Damayan, compassionate caring, raising funds to celebrate birthdays together, to pay for the hospital or funeral bills of any needy family, and to qualify for micro-financing for their livelihood projects. Their leaders patrolled the neighborhood day and night, securing peace and order in the community. They found their voice in a signature campaign demanding basic community services from their government and felt empowered when their demands were met.

Today, they are known as the United Muslim-Christian Peacemakers’ Association of Tala, and their membership has tripled. Last April they were awarded 1.32 million pesos for their micro-enterprises by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.