Silsilah experience in Mindanao
Mindanao – Zamboanga City, Philippines (FIS), 15 July 2019 -- Fr. Eugene Maclasang (Delegate for Pakistan) and Fr Arvin Abatayao (Delegate for Missionary Animation) spent two weeks (July 1-15) in Mindanao, Zamboanga City, attending the 2nd Silsilah Special Program on Muslim-Christian Dialogue with the theme: “Christianity and Islam at the crossroads”.
Silsilah is an Arabic word which means chain, link, or connection. This term was coined by Fr Sebastiano D’Ambra PIME, the founder of the Christian-Muslim dialogue movement (1984). The term perfectly fits the aim of the movement. The key word is ‘DIALOGUE’. Creating a culture of dialogue is the only way to connect people torn by conflict because of culture and religion. Planting the culture of dialogue is the only path to peace. In the mind of the founder, such ‘culture of dialogue’ leading to peace must necessarily be a spirituality one should embrace. As spirituality it is a life-in-dialogue with God, with self, with others, and with creation. These four dimensions of dialogue reminded me of the disharmony brought about by original sin [Gen 3:8-19], man’s disharmony with self, with God, with neighbour, and with nature.
Arriving in Zamboanga city, the Silsilah staff was very kind to fetch us from the airport. The Harmony Village, the headquarters of the Silsilah movement/foundation, is about an hour from the airport. The offices and the quarters of the village were very simple and practical. We were in all 31 participants, men and women, composed of 16 Muslims and 15 Christians.
Learning about each other's religion
July 2, Tuesday was the first day of the series of lectures that lasted until July 11, Thursday. The lecture days were interrupted by the two week-end immersion in Muslim/Christian families. I was particularly interested in the input on the Qur’an, the basics of the Muslim faith, the basics of the Islam philosophy connected with the Greek Philosophers. It was very enlightening to hear from the Muslim Professors and my Muslim co-participants that Islam is a religion of peace. I have heard before that the word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission to the will of God’, or that it is derived from the Arabic word ‘sal’m’ which literally means peace. However due to the violence apparently done by Muslim fundamentalists, I had my biases and was sceptical about Islam as a religion of peace. During the duration of the seminar we had a lot of lively exchanges with our Muslim co-participants: we shared casually during meals and break time; we shared reflections together after each input, we prepared cultural presentations together; we did reports together even related to the Christian Bible. These light moments in between lectures contributed much to reducing or eliminating my own biases about Muslims. Surely there is still that fear inside me that if I give in to them [the Muslims] they will take advantage of me. Here the core Gospel passage of the Silsilah movement becomes very handy - the Beatitudes. In the Chapel of the village, where the Roman Catholic participants celebrate daily mass, we find the passage of the Beatitudes [Matt 5:3-12] clearly displayed. Fr Sebastiano, the Silsilah Founder, placed this as the main principle behind the spirituality of the life-in-Dialogue.
Praying together with the Muslims
Throughout the two-week seminar the Muslims try their best to be faithful to their prayer time in the Mosque located inside the village. The Roman Catholic participants, aside from the daily mass, also attend the daily holy hour at 6pm. The founder believes that one has to be fervent in one’s faith, an authentic Muslim and an authentic Christian, in order to live the Spirituality of Dialogue. I have to admit that at first I am a little uneasy in relating with people who do not share my faith. In the coming days however I become more tolerant. I am reminded of the passage in Mark 9: 40, “whoever is not against us is for us”. They may not believe in the divinity of Jesus, but if they believe in the ever-merciful God, then there is a point of connection. Another significant point in my spiritual reflection during these days is the crucial difference between my faith and that of my Muslim companions. They are very insistent in their absolute though distant monotheistic God. I do not argue with them on this. However I realized how important it is to maximize the personal encounter with God in the daily Eucharist and Holy Hour. Without this sincere Eucharistic encounter, there is little difference between me and the fervent Muslim.
Weekend immersion in the Muslim Families
Another highlight in this two-week seminar is the week-end immersion with Muslim families. In the first week-end, July 5 to 7, I was assigned to a Muslim family in the island of Sta. Cruz. In the second week-end, July 12 to 14, I was assigned to a Muslim family in the city area within the “ground –zero” of the Zamboanga siege way back 2013. During these immersions I was able to connect quickly with my foster families because of the basic Filipino traits that we share: the smile, the hospitality, the respect. What struck me however was not so much the religious difference but the glaring poverty I experienced especially with the families leaving in the island of Sta. Cruz. The families in the residential part of the island [about 70 to 80 families] have no water and proper bathroom. They rely on rainwater and have to buy from the city the water for cooking and drinking. There are no comfort rooms in most if not in all the houses. The island is a 15- minute drive by motor boat from the city on calm seas. During the two nights in the island I realized how luxurious my life is having my own room and my own toilet. It was a very good examination of conscience on my vow of poverty. The Silsilah foundation has done a good thing in putting up an elementary school in the island. A 100 peso is very valuable for my foster family, to cover for food and the weekly allowance of their grand children going to the city for their high school studies. As I left my foster family I did not hesitate to leave them some amount for their needs as a token of gratitude for the hospitality.
Silsilah experience – a great eye opener
The two-week seminar was indeed an eye opener to the reality of southernmost part of the Philippines. A Filipino Muslim was almost non-existent in my mind. Having met and made friends with good Muslims made the difference. I never gave a thought to the struggles that the Catholic Filipinos are undergoing in a Muslim environment. Having met the Catholic youth from Marawi, I became interested in visiting them and experience their struggles. Their struggles may not be far from the struggles of our Christian youth in Pakistan.
We thank our Regional Councilor for encouraging us to join the seminar, we thank our Provincial and Provincial Economer for supporting our participation, we thank also Fr Sebastiano, PIME, for such a great missionary work. Most of all we thank the Lord for the experience. We will continue to reflect on the realities encountered during this two remarkable weeks.
May I be able to hear clearly the voice which the Lord wants me to hear as I continue to immerse myself in this reality of a ‘life-in-dialogue’ with God, with myself, with my confreres and the people I work with and work for, and also seriously consider a life-in-dialogue with nature.