Talks in Rome cry for peace in Mindanao

Christian and Muslim religious leaders come together in Rome at the informal peace talks on Mindanao by the Sant’Egidio Community from September 14 to 17, in light of the detrimental issues of extremism and false ideologies that had plagued Marawi City and displaced countless of its innocent people.

In Rome, Mona Lisa Pangan smiled upon witnessing the works of her Maker. 

Although Leonardo Da Vinci may be regarded as the true Renaissance man, his works could only go so far as timeless spectacles. The framed image of a woman, bearing the same name, despite the beauty of her smile’s mystery, could never compare to the incomprehensible and divine grace of the true Artist who created – by His will – both Mona and Da Vinci in His own image and likeness. 

But more valuable than any of Da Vinci’s art is peace – a universal truth that no Renaissance man has yet to perfect nor completely accomplished without failure. It requires neither brush nor chisel, but only reason and faith – values that had founded the Renaissance, and had exceeded the era until the present time.

The Marawi war 

For Mona Lisa Pangan of Xavier Ateneo’s Office of Mission and Ministry, the advocacy for peace was the reason why she went to Rome, and it was her faith that encouraged her to respond to the invitation with acceptance. The informal peace talks on Mindanao by the Sant’Egidio Community from September 14 to 17, gathered Christian and Muslim religious leaders in light of the detrimental issues of extremism and false ideologies that had plagued Marawi City and displaced countless of its innocent people since May.  

With her experience and personal accounts of the rehabilitation of the communities in barangays Buadi Itowa and Parba in Marawi City, she was the only participant in the peace talks who had actually seen the situation of the refugees.

It may have been a surprise to know that it was Zamboanga-based Silsilah Dialogue Movement founder Fr Sebastiano D’Ambra of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), who recommended her prior to receiving an invitation from the Sant’Egidio Community last August, but she humbly and wholeheartedly took the opportunity to share what she had witnessed among the internally displaced refugees. 

“I was with Xavier Ateneo’s Social Development cluster when we first visited the municipality and looked for communities where the university could help,” she recounted. Their regular visitation to Lanao del Sur followed immediately after the siege to aid the displaced. 

“Saguiaran holds the largest evacuation center in Lanao del Sur. Eventually, we discovered that the vice mayor of the municipality was once the president of Xavier Ateneo’s Muslim-led student religious organization, Siraj,” said Mona, who is also the moderator. “They guided us to reach evacuation sites; then we adopted the two barangays for rehabilitation.”

Since May, the communities became her second home. She had seen the refugees crowd over boxes of relief goods, hastily hauling what they could get to survive. Sacks of clothes were distributed, canned goods were shared, and prayer constituted the most important activity of the day.

Believers of different religions prayed with the same intention. With the generous aid of volunteers, the communities had gradually risen from the rubbles of their once crumbled hopes. 

“The people were so grateful for not being neglected,” Mona recalled, her eyes glistening within the conference room where she narrated details about their ordeal. The volunteers, she shared, were young professionals living in the area. “We trained them on how to manage properly their community until the hectares of land where they were staying were utilized for planting crops and vegetables.” 

Having resettled at fertile sites, the communities began to harvest mungbean seeds, string beans, squash, eggplant, and countless other greens with the continuing wish to return to their homes someday. With the war raging in Marawi, it seemed impossible at first to find a greener pasture, but their resettlement sites in the Municipality of Saguiaran had proved otherwise. The fields marked their land of promise, far from the threat of their lives. The abundant harvests provided the opportunity to engage in agriculture.

‘Maute was here’

This was among the many points of discussion covered during the peace talks. But although Mona traversed on bricked streets and gazed at the pillars that had stood along with them since Rome’s ancient civilization, she could never forget, nor set aside, the memory of seeing the haunting destruction left by the ISIS-Maute terrorist group in the ruins of Marawi. 

“There was one time when my companions and I passed through roads to get to the evacuation centers where houses were literally pulverized and walls that were left standing had vandals written over them,” she said. The vandalism had read, The Maute was here, in red spray paint. 

A Roman Catholic, Mona believes this blatant act of terrorism, as well as its visible and adverse consequences, does not constitute the teachings of Islam. 

“Islam and Christianity are religions for peace,” stated the written declaration that was the fruit of the peace talks.

But to understand this extremism and the terrorists’ dark agenda, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chairman Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim, who was among the participants in the peace talks, explained that terrorism and false ideologies proliferate every time the peace process fails to establish an autonomous Moro State in Mindanao in Muslim-majority regions recognized by the Republic of the Philippines. 

Ebrahim, who is an advocate for the Bangsamoro Basic Law, was quoted by Mona based on one of their conversations. 

“[Terrorism] is borne out of frustration,” Mona said. “Most of the answers during the round-table discussions claimed that the Marawi Siege was the outburst of frustration.”

To analyze the emergence of terrorist groups is to look into the vicious cycle of government refusal to grant Muslim Filipinos a land of their own. 

During the Ramos administration, the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) was agreed by the national government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). It was abolished during the Arroyo administration a decade later. 

In 2008, the MILF and the national government reached an agreement to expand the scope of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) through the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain.

However, the deal was later rejected by the Supreme Court in 2011. 

The PNoy Aquino administration proposed another solution to pursue the peace process. In March 2014, the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) was introduced. This would mean that the unconquerable people (who had retained their culture and beliefs amidst the colonization of the Spanish Empire, the occupation the United States, and the invasion of Japan in the Philippines) will be given direct authority to establish their own basic laws and declare their territories independent from the Manila-centric national government. 

In the present Duterte administration, the BBL has not yet been fully passed and implemented.

Over the years, the Abu Sayaff, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and the Maute terrorist group, the last founded by Omar and Abdulla whose surname was used to identify its members, had kidnapped, beheaded, and murdered local and foreign nationals to advance their cause.

As these acts had no basis in the religion according to devout and peace-loving followers, it can be justified that Islam, like Christianity, does not condone violence. Rather, terrorism in Mindanao was provoked by historical injustice and social prejudice.

In the Philippines, Muslims have been driven out from their land due to socio-political conflicts, and are presently antagonized by stereotypes based on heinous acts committed by terrorists who do not genuinely represent their religion or follow the laws of their faith. 

A cry for peace

The declaration among the religious leaders during the peace talks cried for the dire situation in Marawi to be resolved through a mutual understanding of both religions and the advocacy for peace to reign in the hearts of the faithful. 

“The restoration of relationships is doable without biases,” Mona said.  

The declaration, written during the peace talks and was read verbally by Mona in the forum’s conclusion, was sealed by religious and political leaders who testified as signatories. 

Namely, they are composed of:

• Cagayan de Oro City Archbishop Antonio J Ledesma SJ DD
• Bishop-Prelate of Marawi Edwin de la Peña DD
• Xavier Ateneo Office of Mission and Ministry student formator Mona Lisa Pangan 
• Marawi Hayatul Ulama secretary-general Dr Said Zamahsari Salendab
• Regional Darul Ifta – ARMM executive director Dr Ustadz Abdulmuhmin Mujahid 
• Community of Sant’Egidio head of international relations Dr Mauro Garofalo
• Community of Sant’Egidio secretary-general of peoples and religions Professor Alberto Quattrucci

Extending its purpose beyond a written document, the declaration, entitled, “A Cry for Peace in Mindanao” contains a blueprint for the suggested initiatives to establish peace. 

Among them are opportunities for the interfaith and intra-faith dialogues to take place in communities consisting of diverse beliefs. Presently, Mindanao is home to Christians, Muslims, and the Lumad (the indigenous people of the regions), and dialogues such as the peace talks in Rome will aid in addressing the conflicts and promote understanding among their people.

Members of the youth are also encouraged to partake in activities that would enhance the strengthening of intercultural ties. This is also to combat the recruitment of terrorist groups that have been commonly targeting young people whose naivety makes them vulnerable to radicalism. 

The document also mentions the Duyog Marawi (“Accompany Marawi”) as a specific undertaking to promote peace and solidarity by the Prelature of St Mary in the war-torn city of Marawi.  

For Mona Lisa, the acknowledgment and accreditation of the Madrasa (Islamic schools) by the basic education department were suggested to properly monitor whether the teachings are truly and genuinely Islamic, and to avoid the preaching of radical ideology. 

“We must have proper support and accredited programs for the Ulamas (Muslim scholars and educators) in Madrasa, and encourage interfaith dialogue in private and public schools,” Mona, who has been exposed to the same kind of activities for more than 20 years, suggested. 

Although the document was written and completed in Rome, and despite the peace talks centralizing in the Marawi siege and its associated social crises involving the marginalized and the minority, the issues are universal in truth.

It is also universally true that both reason and faith could establish peace within communities. To settle differences through force in the absence of understanding is to disregard the value of life – a reprehensible act common in Abrahamic religions. 

When Mona Lisa Pangan had witnessed this peace in the resettled communities adopted by Xavier Ateneo – the kind of peace advocated by the religious leaders during the Sant’Egidio’s informal peace talks in Rome – the smile revealed on her face when she narrated her experience entailed no mystery. Instead, it shone with the hope for a brighter future when war and prejudice become history [This essay is reprinted with permission from]