Muslim-Christian Dialogue of Life and Faith: The Role of Basic Ecclesial Communities

Talk given by Rev. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR
Prelature Assembly, Prelature of St. Mary in Marawi
(April 5-9, 1999)

Introduction

Maayong Good Morning. One of the dreams of the late Bishop Benny Tudtud, was to build up a Christian Community engaged in a dialogue of life and faith with our Muslim brothers and sisters. This is what he longed for and he tried to make this dream a reality. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to see its full realization.

Throughout the years since Benny’s death, the local Church in Marawi has faithfully continued what he started. One of the significant development in this dialogue of life and faith is the realization that this has to be carried out not only at the higher levels (between the religious leaders) but also at the grassroots level. Thus, the BECs in the prelature are being formed as vehicles for interreligious dialogue.

The question that concerns us in this gathering is: how can BECs carry out a dialogue of life and faith with the dominant Muslim communities in Lanao?

At the outset let me just say that I do not come as an expert on Christian-Muslim dialogue. Nor do I have any experience of building up BECs in Muslim-dominated areas. I took a course on Islam two decades ago and I have done some personal study recently. My attitude towards Muslims has partly been influenced by my grandfather who lived and worked in Marawi, my father who was born near Lake Lanao and who later built bridges in Masiu and Ramain, and my Muslim cousins (my aunt married a Muslim). In our case the dialogue of life began in our extended family. I was reminded of this fact a few months ago when my cousin, Ali Khan, who was with the MILF visited me in Davao. We felt a deep sense of affinity for each other. Even if we belonged to different religions, what bound us was that we have a common ancestor. We are the descendants of Bernardo – our grandfather.

So for whatever it is worth, let me share with you my thoughts about the role of BECs in interreligious dialogue.

1. The Need of BECs to Engage in a Dialogue of Life and Faith

One of the tendencies that must be avoided by the local Church and the BECs is the “ghetto-mentality.” We might build up a vibrant local Church and BECs that become in-ward looking – Christian Communities or enclaves that co-exist with Islamic communities but without any relation with them. The danger is – a time will come when mutual distrust and suspicion could build up and lead to religious conflict. The image of Christians and Muslims burning each other’s churches or mosques and killing each other in Indonesia is frightening. That could happen here if BECs fail to enter into a dialogue of life and faith with Muslim communities.

The opposite tendency that must also be avoided is for the local Church and BECs to engage in proselytization. Fired with missionary zeal, Christians might try to convert their Muslim neighbors so that they may be saved. This is a strategy that will surely lead to failure and create unnecessary conflict. We must give up any dream of Christianizing the predominantly Muslim environment. We have to avoid any impression that we are out to convert our Muslim neighbors and friends.

The missionary and evangelizing activity of the local Church and the BECs cannot be carried out through the “ghetto-mentality” or by proselytization. It can only be done through witness and dialogue. Dialogue is a legitimate and necessary way of evangelizing.

Since Vatican II, we have been made aware of the necessity to engage in interreligious dialogue, especially with Muslims. We are called to live in peace, harmony and friendship with them and to work with them in promoting peace, justice and freedom. This is the challenge for the local Church and the BECs.

Interreligious dialogue can be carried out at different levels. In the past, this dialogue have been carried out by leaders and scholars of both sides. The Bishops-Ulama dialogue is the best example here in Mindanao. The clergy and religious have also been involved in a limited way. While dialogue among leaders and experts is important, it is not enough. The lay people should also be involved. According to Benny Tudtud: “people that form themselves into small communities are the primary elements in genuine dialogue.” Thus, BECs should be in the forefront of this dialogue of life and faith.

2. Pre-requisites for Dialogue

There are some requirements that BECs need to fulfill before they can enter into dialogue with their Muslim neighbors.

2.1 Experiencing and Understanding the Local Context and Culture

The BECs must know and understand the various dimensions of the local context: economic, social, political, cultural, etc. According to the FABC statement on “Evangelization in Modern-Day Asia,” a dialogue of life “involves a genuine experience and understanding of this poverty, deprivation and oppression of so many of our peoples … and to learn from them their real needs and aspirations.” A political-economic analysis is not enough. There has to be an ethnic/cultural analysis. The BECs in the prelature of Marawi have to understand the dynamics of the Maranao culture, politics and society.

There is a poster with a quotation from Bishop Kenneth Bragg placed on a picture of some pair of shoes taken by Bishop Benny Tudtud. This sums up what our attitude should be when we face another culture and religion:
Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is TO TAKE OFF OUR SHOES, for the place we are approaching is holy, else we may find ourselves treading on men’s dreams, more seriously still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.

2.2 Studying Islam and Discovering the “Seeds of the Word”

A very important prerequisite for dialogue is some knowledge and understanding of Islam. One of the goals of dialogue is to discover the “seeds of the Word” that has been sown by the Holy Spirit in a particulare culture and religious tradition like Islam. Thus, besides reading the bible, the BECs will also have to read the Qur’an and study the Church’s teaching about Islam. Among the major religions, Islam is the closest to Christianity. In Sura 3 of the Qur’an we can find the creed that Muslims profess:

We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us,
And to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes
And that given to Moses and Jesus.
In this creed, we can discern the “seeds of the Word.” The one true God that Muslims believe is the God of Abraham (Ibrahim), Isaac and Jacob. He is the God who reveals himself to Moses and Jesus! Allah is another name for Yahweh that the Jews believe in, and the God of the Christians. He is a merciful and compassionate God.

Like the Jews and the Christians, the Muslims consider Abraham as their father in faith. They also believe in Jesus as the great prophet whom God has revealed one of his books – the Gospel. In the Qur’an, Jesus is referred to as the “Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary,” Al Masih, Isa Ibn Maryam. The annunciation and the virgin birth is narrated in the Qur’an. Mary’s submission to the will of God is regarded as a model for believers. There is one whole Surah that bears the title of Maryam.

The followers of Jesus are also called the People of the Book, Ahl al Kitab:

There are among the people of the Book some upright men who all night long recite the revelations of Allah and worship Him: who believe in Allah and the Last Day; who enjoin justice and forbid evil and vie with each other in good works. These righteous men: whatever good they do, its rewards shall not be denied them. Allah knows the righteous.

In the Qur’an the believers are called to care for the poor and the oppressed, the widows and the orphans. They are likewise enjoined to do justice.

There is also a belief in the resurrection of the dead in the Last Day.

These are just some of the “seeds of the Word” that one can find in the Qur’an. Although there are a lot of divergence with Christianity (e.g. the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the death and resurrection of Jesus, etc.) there are also a lot of convergence. There is a common religious patrimony that Christians and Muslims share.

This is the reason why Vatican II has a positive view of Islam:

The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are Muslims, these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day. (LG 16).

The high esteem for Muslims can also be found in the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate 3:The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims, who worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoke to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledgin him as God, they worship Jesus as a prophet, his virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and woship God, especially by way of prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.

A deeper understanding and positive appreciation of Islam, especially its closeness to Christianity, can help change our negative outlook and prejudices against Muslims. It makes us aware that Muslims are not our enemies. They are not only our neighbors and friends, they are also our relatives in the faith. If they and us can regard Abraham us our ancestor in faith – then we can regard each other as the spiritual descendants of Abraham - mga kaliwat ni Abraham. This can become a solid basis for our dialogue of life and faith.

3. How can BECs engage in a dialogue of life and faith?

Some of you have probably started the dialogue of life and faith at the grassroots level – as BECs. Others are still searching for effective means in carrying out the dialogue of life and faith. Let us discuss some of these.

3.1 Knocking down walls, Building Bridges

It is not enough to knock down the wall around the Cathedral of St. Mary in Marawi. What needs to be knocked down are the fortress/ghetto mentality and the prejudices that prevent the local Church and the BECs from engaging in a dialogue of life and faith. This means not allowing ourselves to be cowed by fear. We have to open up ourselves and our communities so that dialogue will become possible.

We should build bridges rather than walls. This means establishing personal contacts and friendships with Muslims around us. This requires living in an open and neighborly spirit. Being able to talk with each other and maintain lines of communication. We have to become good neighbors to one another. The leaders of the BECs need to cultivate friendships with the leaders of the Muslim communities. The personal contacts can gradually expand to the communal level. Christians as a community (BECs) should relate to Muslims as a community – and together they can help build up a wider community where Muslims and Christians live in harmony.

3.2 Working together to promote justice, peace, integral development and integrity of creation

Both Islam and Christianity have a tradition for the concern for the poor and the needy. Likewise there is a common concern to promote justice and development. This is therefore an area where dialogue and collaboration can take place.

There are problems and issues that concern the BECs and the Muslim communities: poverty, hunger, underdevelopment, violence, or the destruction of the environment. A dialogue of life involves talking about these problems and searching for solutions. Christians and Muslims can work together to bring about peace and development. There are Muslim NGOs that are working on environmental and ecololgical issues. The BECs can establish contact with these groups and actively work with them. Christians and Muslims can also jointly organize livelihood programs and cooperatives. In situations of grave injustice and violation of human rights, the BECs should work with Muslim communities to bring about justice and to defend their rights. The times of calamities and disasters are opportunities for cooperation and collaboration.

The option for the poor should be directed not only at Christians who are poor but also Muslims who are poor. Programs and projects undertaken by BECs should benefit not only their members but also the Muslim neighbors. The role of the BECs as serving communities should be exercised not only ad intra (for the benefit of the members) but also ad extra, for others outside that community that are most in need – and this includes the Muslims.

3.3 Common Celebration

The dialogue of faith and life can be concretely expressed in honoring each other’s celebration. The Duyog Ramadhan is a very good practice introduced by the MSPC some time ago. I hope this will be continued at the BEC level.

The Muslims honor Jesus, the son of Mary (Isa Ibn Maryam) as the great prophet. The annunciation and the virgin birth of Jesus is recorded in the Qur’an. The local Church and the BECs should devise a program that will invite the Muslims to celebrate with the Christians the birth of Jesus.

Muslims also honor and venerate the Virgin Mary. They can be invited to celebrate with us the Feast of the Annunciation and Our Lady of Fatima (Fatima was the favorite daughter of the prophet Muhammad).

There are some Muslim feasts in honor of Abraham. The BECs should find out what these feasts are and create activities and programs similar to the Duyog Ramadhan.

These celebrations should lead to table-fellowship where Christians and Muslims can eat together and celebrate their friendship and affinity.

The invitation to join each other’s celebration is a way of recognizing the common religious patrimony that Christians and Muslims share.

3.4 Common Affirmation of Shared Religious Patrimony

There are ongoing dialogues among the leaders and experts of both sides. While being aware of their differences, these dialogues should lead to the recognition of the points of convergence between Islam and Christianity. The results of these dialogue should be passed on to the grassroots level. The principle of reception can be applied here. There are several areas of convergence which can be affirmed by the BECs and the Muslim communities:

a. Abraham is our Ancestor in Faith, We are his Spiritual Descendants

Muslims and Christians (as well as Jews) consider Abraham as their forefather in faith. Because of this, we (Muslims and Christians) are his spiritual descendants (Kaliwat ni Abraham). Thus, we can move from saying Kamo and Kami (You and Us) to saying, Kita (We). This is our common identity – descendants/children of Abraham. Thus, we can say to one another – we belong to the one extended family of Abraham – we are relatives, even brothers and sisters.

b. The one and only God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, and Jacob is also our God.

It is Abraham’s faith and trust in the one God, his monotheism, that we share. We call him by different names (Allah, Yahweh, God, Dios) but he is the same God – the almighty creator, merciful and compassionate – that we believe in and to whom we submit ourselves. This is the God that has revealed himself at various times through the great biblical figures:

We believe in Allah (God), and the revelation given to us,
And to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes
And that given to Moses and Jesus.c. God has revealed himself and his Word through Jesus, the Christ

Jesus (Isa), the Al Masih (Messiah, Christ), the Ibn Maryam (Son of Mary). His birth was announced through the angel Gabriel. He was virginally conceived, without a human father, by the power of God. He is the servant of God, the great prophet who proclaimed the Good News (Injil). With miraculous power he went about doing good, healing the sick, feeding the hungry. He was rejected by his contemporaries and only his disciples stood by him. He died and God raised him up to Him in Heaven.

d. Mary, the virgin Mother of Jesus, Exalted above all Women, the Model for Believers

Mary (Sitti Maryam), is the mother of Jesus. The Angel Gabriel appeared to her and announced Jesus’ birth. She is exalted among all women. She is the model for all believers because of her faith and submission to God’s will.

e. The Resurrection of the Dead in the Last Day

Christians and Muslims believe in the same future, the resurrection of the dead.

Both Christians and Muslims should be made aware of their common religious patrimony. There are many Christians and Muslims who are not yet aware of these areas of convergence. The mutual affirmation of these areas of convergence will hopefully lead to a mutual appreciation among Christians and Muslims. This should lead Christians to hold Muslims in high regard. At the same time both Muslims and Christians have to be constantly reminded that Islam has a high regard for Christians who are referred to as the “People of the Book”, Ahl al Kitab. In the past the Christian minorities in predominantly Muslim societies in the Middle East were give special status as Ahl al Dhimma, the “protected peoples.” Their rights and autonomy were respected by the Muslim majority. The BECs in the dominant Muslim regions in Mindanao can lay claim to this status.

Conclusion

The dialogue of life and as an ongoing task. While dialogue among experts and leaders is necessary, this dialogue should also be carried out at the grassrooots – by the BECs. A grasp of the the local situation, the culture, the people and Islam is necessary in order for the BECs to effectively engage in dialogue. The BECs should also “build bridges”, establish personal contact, lines of communication and friendships among the Muslim neighbors. Shared activities can be undertaken that can build up positive relationships (common celebrations; action for justice, peace, development and integrity of creation; meetings, etc). Dialogue should lead to a common affirmation of the areas of agreement and convergence between Christians and Muslims. The discovery of the share religious patrimony can lead a closer bond of affinity and recognize each other as not only neighbors and friends but as the spiritual descendants of Abraham - kaliwat ni Abraham.