“Before, the Philippines was a dream place for inter religious dialogue between Christians and Muslims … but now people are frightened even to go to Mass”, says Fr Sebastiano D’Ambra, an Italian missionary in Mindanao
By Monica de la Morena
Fr Sebastiano D’Ambra sounds weary as he responds to a phone call from the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). The time is 3 p.m. in the Philippines. “I was just updating the webpage of Silsilah”, he explains, as he switches off the computer. This Sicilian missionary has spent almost 40 years living in this country of Southeast Asia and working for dialogue and peace between Christians and Muslims. Over half his life.
(Fr. Sebastiano D'Ambra, Founder of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement in Zamboanga City, Philippines. Silsilah is an Arabic word that literally means “chain” or “link”. The Silsilah Dialogue Movement is the recipient of the 2013 Goi Peace Award of the Tokyo based Goi Peace Foundation © Aid to the Church in Need)
“Before, the Philippines was a dream place for interreligious dialogue; there was complete harmony. But now the situation has changed completely”, explains this priest of the Pontifical Foreign Missions Institute (PIME, to give it its full Latin acronym). “The threats from the Islamists are constant in the south of the country, above all on the island of Jolo. Kidnappings, violence, persecutions… only recently they murdered a Christian”, he tells ACN dejectedly, adding that behind this situation there are hidden “geopolitical and military interests”. “It is a very complex scenario”, he concludes.
Thirty years ago Fr D’Ambra founded a movement for “dialogue and peace” between Christians and Muslims that has since been internationally recognised. It is called the Silsilah Forum and numerous interreligious groupings of Filipinos belong to it today. For decades they have lived in a spirit of true fraternity between the religions. “Previously, we were dealing with a traditional form of Islam, but now everything has changed; the violent tendencies have grown, and every time they get stronger.”
Fr Sebastiano keeps calling on the islamic leaders not to act “as if nothing were happening”, but to mobilise and denounce the dangerous situation people are facing to the authorities. But instead “they remain with arms folded; they are afraid of reprisals and choose to remain silent.” And the truth is that it is an alarming situation, not only for the Christians, but also for the moderate Muslims.
According to Fr Sebastiano Islam is growing by leaps and bounds in some areas of the Philippines. “In Mindanao, once 80% of the population was Christian. Today it could be that only 60% are Christians, and the other 40% are Muslims. The Christians are not happy. They are living in fear, terrified to speak out or to go to Mass, despite the presence of the army”. He also added that “many Christians are moving away from here.” Yet despite this gloomy picture, the Filipino people continue to have a deep faith. The churches are still always full and the major religious feasts, like Holy Week, are celebrated with great enthusiasm. It is worth recalling that during the visit by Pope Francis to the Philippines in January 2015, over 6 million people attended the Mass celebrated by the Holy Father in Manila, making it the biggest ever event in history presided over by a Pope.
May Our Lady of the Pillar protect us!
The Catholics of Zamboanga, a city in the south of the island of Mindanao, where Fr D’Ambra lives at present, have a special devotion to Our Lady – under the title of Our Lady of the Pillar (la Virgen del Pilar), a traditional Spanish devotion to Our Lady, that has persisted in the Philippines after almost three centuries of Spanish rule. In the words of Fr D’Ambra “The Virgen del Pilar is deeply revered by the faithful. They always pray to her never to abandon us, and now more than ever in the face of this worldwide plague of violence.” It is a hatred and terror they have already experienced at first hand in Zamboanga in 2013, when the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) attacked and burnt down a large area of the city, killing many people. It is an offshoot of this same terror group, the jihadist Abu Sayyaf movement that is very active on all the islands in the south of the country and has committed a great many terrorist attacks, including a recent attack in June when they beheaded a Canadian tourist.
It is a climate of violence and intolerance, against which Fr Sebastiano is fighting daily, supported by ACN, which for years now has been helping Fr D’Ambra in a range of projects aimed at promoting peace and dialogue. They include, for example, training courses for the laity, campaigns for promoting tolerance, support for the construction of the Silsilah foundation centre in Zamboanga and various publications, all aimed at promoting good relations between Christians and Muslims
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 172 languages and 50 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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