A Christian In Harmony With Islam

By Father Paul Glynn

A Columban priest lives with Muslims in Mindanao to help break down centuries of Muslim-Christian enmity.

It is 3:30am: time to get up and prepare our breakfast before the sun rises at 4:15. Once we hear the Call to Prayer from the local mosques, we know we won’t be able to eat a single bite or let a drop of water pass our lips until the sun sets and we have heard the welcome sound of the evening call,‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Greater), once again from the mosques. This will remind us that it is time to break our fast after a long, hot day of hunger and, worse still, thirst.

This is our daily routine for the 30 days of the Holy Month of Ramadan, not only here in Mindanao, but throughout the whole Muslim world. As I sit, at the end of another hot day, I wait expectantly for the bilal at the mosque to cry out: ‘Allahu Akbar,’ a reminder that it is now all right to relieve our parched throats with a cup of cold water. It is then I often ask myself what I, an Irish Catholic priest, am doing living with Filipino Muslims and sharing with them the hardships and joys of the Ramadan fast.

I have been living, on and off, in Muslim households for about nine years now. I have found it effective in breaking down the barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding that have long divided so many Muslim and Christian communities here in Mindanao.

The author, Fr Paul Glynn (right) presented a Muslim/Christian relationship workshop with Amiyah Mambuhay (left), a Maranao Muslim, Aliyah Pandapatan and her husband Aleem Sanussi Pandapatan.

This tradition of Columban priests leaving their conventos to live with Muslim families in Muslim communities was inspired by the late Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud from Cebu City, first bishop of the Prelature of Iligan. Bishop Tudtud, in the face of persistent misunderstandings, violence and bloodshed between Christians and Muslims back in the 1970s, sensed that the Catholic Church must do more to be a credible witness to the peace of Jesus Christ in this war-torn situation.

In response to the vision of Bishop Tudtud, Pope Paul VI divided the prelature in 1976, made Iligan into a diocese and appointed Bishop Tudtud to the new Prelature of Marawi, which is 95 percent Muslim. The bishop said he wanted to ‘offer a hand of friendship’ to his Muslim neighbors and become a ‘reconciling presence’ between the two communities.

As the old saying points out, ‘prejudice is the fruit of ignorance.’ Bishop Tudtud had the insight to see that for us Christians to overcome our fear, distrust and hatred of Muslims, we must experience first-hand how Muslims live their lives and practice their Islamic faith, living with them and sharing important moments of their lives, such as the annual Ramadan fast. That is why I find myself here, today, living in this Muslim household.

500 Years Of Misunderstanding

The deep animosity so common between Christians and Muslims here in the Philippines was first sown by Spanish colonizers, whose hatred of all things Islamic stemmed from their 800-year struggle to expel the Moros (Moors) of Africa from their own shores. When the Spaniards arrived in the Philippine islands, Spanish officials mistakenly took the indigenous Muslim tribes to be Moors and embarked upon a hostile policy of undermining the strong Islamic influences they encountered here. These Spaniards tended to view Islam as the enemy of the Church. Thus the seeds of mistrust and animosity between Muslims and Christians were imported and sown over 500 years ago. Once engrained, as one would expect, they are not easily uprooted.

This mistrust between the two faiths is so often and so easily manipulated for the personal gain of the corrupt and powerful few. It is now generally accepted that the bitter Muslim-Christian conflict of the 1970s and ’80s was deliberately orchestrated by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies. They armed Christian civilians on the one hand and Muslim civilians on the other, creating a sufficient climate of suspicion so conflict would be inevitable. This gave President Marcos the ‘state of emergency’ he needed to declare Martial Law.

Kidnappings for ransom of foreign nationals and wealthy businessmen and other forms of terrorist activity still occasionally occur here, and the Muslim community is usually the first to be blamed. It is true that much of this criminality (most notably some Abu Sayyaf kidnappings) usually takes place in Muslim-dominated areas.

Unfortunately, these acts are often the work of corrupt political and military figures who are not Muslims but who know that the knee-jerk reaction, by the media and most of the population, will automatically blame Muslims. This ensures that few really bother to investigate the real culprits of such criminality.

The bombings of public places are not always the work of Islamic extremists. Often, they are the work of rogue elements within the military who orchestrate such events to keep Mindanao in a state of war; a war from which some continue to gain financially.

Breaking Down Barriers

One of my ministries is simply going to schools, churches and local communities in areas with a Christian majority and sharing my experiences of living in Muslim communities. Normally, I invite Muslim friend of mine, usually an aleem (Islamic theologian) or other religious leader, to share his or her faith with the Christian audiences, who are then invited to ask questions about the Islamic faith and cultural traditions of Filipino Muslims.

These are great opportunities for people to learn about the Islamic faith and replace their negative biases and preconceptions of Muslims with correct information about their religion and cultural practices.

It gives me great satisfaction to be part of a program that turns ignorance into understanding and prejudice into acceptance and tolerance. These are the very virtues Jesus so passionately preached and practiced here on earth.

At one such gathering, an elderly Catholic man said that it has been the corrupt and powerful who have perpetrated and benefited from misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians from the time of the Spanish occupation to the present. Breaking down these biases and misunderstandings, he said, is a matter of justice and liberation from oppression. As long as these misunderstandings continue to exist, he said, they will continue to be exploited in a way that benefits the corrupt and powerful and makes life miserable for the poor and the voiceless.

Seeing God In The ‘Other.’

Living among Muslim colleagues is a continual reminder why God called me to be a missionary. Our missionary vocation is an invitation from God to be part of an exciting adventure, discovering the presence of God, not just in the Church and in the Bible, but also in the most unlikely people in the most unlikely places.

For me, this missionary call has brought me to live among people with a language, faith and way of life so different from my native Ireland. I find the sheer dedication and commitment shown by many of my friends during the Ramadan fast awe-inspiring.

I am reminded of the all-embracing presence of God during the morning Call to Prayer, followed by the sound of running water as the faithful wash their hands, feet and face in preparation for dawn prayers at the mosque.

God’s spirit blows wherever God wills and to hearts open to receive it; God’s grace is abundant. A friend of mine, Sultan Maguid, told me that his nephew was brutally killed about eleven years ago by a member of a rival political family. The cultural expectation was for Maguid’s family to take revenge on the killer’s family. He prayed long and hard about this and reflected deeply on the words of the Holy Qur’an: ‘It may well be that God will restore the love between you and those of them who are now your enemies. God is All-Powerful. God is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful’ (Surat al-Mumtahana: 7).

These words inspired him to pray for the grace to forgive his nephew’s murderer. Two years later, Anwar, the brother of his murdered nephew, partook in the Holy Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.

Amidst the millions of pilgrims from all over the world, the most unexpected happened. As Anwar approached the Kab’ah (sacred black stone), the focal point of the Hajj, he was drawn to stand next to a man whose face seemed familiar to him, but whom he didn’t recognize. Only when they looked each other in the eye did Anwar realize that the man was his brother’s murderer. Maguid said a force like a magnet drew the two men to embrace each other and offer each other the kiss of peace. For Maguid, this magnetic force was surely the grace of God calling both families to forgiveness and a change of heart.

‘I can now forgive the man who killed my nephew, from my heart, Paul,’ Maguid told me with a calm conviction.

I am forever grateful to God for inviting me to be a missionary and giving me the privilege to experience His spirit at work among so many diverse peoples and places in ways I never dreamt possible.

Columban Father Paul Glynn of Ireland was ordained in 1994 and first went to the Philippines in 1990 as a seminarian. He began his Christian-Muslim dialogue ministry in August 2004.You may email him at polmagfhloinn@yahoo.com or write him at St Columban’s, PO Box 268, 9000 CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY.