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Journey to an Islamic State

Filed under: Impact Articles |

By Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ

LAST January 13-17, I joined a Philippine delegation composed of three Catholic bishops, five Muslim Ulama and professors, three Protestant bishops and pastor, and several government officials on a trip to Pakistan. Upon invitation of Pakistan’s President extended to President Gloria Arroyo, we, representatives of the Bishops-Ulama Conference (BUC), went to Islamabad to share our experience in inter-religious dialogue and also to learn from Pakistan’s government officials and religious leaders about their efforts in providing equal rights for religious minorities.

The BUC delegation was headed by its convenors—Archbishop Fernando Capalla for the Catholics, Dr. Hamid Barra and Judge Aboali Cali for the Muslims, and Bishop Hilario Gomez, Jr., for the Protestants. Bishop Edwin de la Peña from the Prelature of St. Mary’s in Marawi, and myself from the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro, completed the Catholic participation. Official head of the Philippine delegation was Secretary General Isabel Tobias of the Presidential Council on Interfaith Initiatives.

On our first day in the nation’s capital, we visited the Minister for Minorities Affairs, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, himself a Christian. This was followed by an interfaith meeting with ulama and other Pakistani religious leaders. Both Philippine and Pakistani spokespersons affirmed each group’s adherence to dialogue and respect for diverse religious traditions.

On the second day, the delegation was received by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Chairman of the Senate. They both expressed Pakistan’s desire to promote a culture of dialogue within their country as well as throughout the world. Indeed, together with the Philippines, Pakistan has taken the initiative to promote a U.N. forum for inter-religious dialogue. At the same time, Pakistan has supported the Philippine government’s bid for observer status in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). The Philippines’ participation in this world body of predominantly Muslim countries would have a significant bearing on the ongoing peace talks in Mindanao.

On the third day, we had a chance to visit the imposing King Faisal Mosque, one of the largest places of worship in the Muslim world. Surrounded by its four towers, and rising above one sector of the planned city of Islamabad, the mosque was a gift of the King of Saudi Arabia in the 50’s, when Pakistan was creating its own identity as a nation after its partition from the British Raj. Last year, Pakistan and the Philippines celebrated 60 years of bilateral ties.
From the mosque, we passed by Said Pur village where Muslims and Hindus still had their places of worship—an example of interfaith co-existence over the years.
We next had a session at the Council of Islamic Ideology, a government- affiliated academic center that clarifies the authentic meaning of Islam. The center has published several fatwas pronounced by ulama and other religious leaders condemning terrorism and extremism.

Our final stop was made after a quick ride to the twin city of Rawalpindi where we visited the Catholic Cathedral of the Diocese of Rawalpindi. Auxiliary Bishop Ruffin Anthony and his assistant showed us the cathedral which in shape and size reminded me of the cathedral in Cagayan de Oro. It was also a pleasant surprise to meet two Daughters of St. Paul, one of them a Filipina missionary, taking care of the cathedral’s bookstore and helping several Pakistani Catholic youth entertain our delegation.

Despite the warmth of our reception in all the places we visited, we could not help notice the tight security surrounding hotels and public buildings, including the cathedral. Over the past few years, Pakistan has been undergoing a period of terrorist bombings, and internal conflicts involving Sunni and Shiite Muslims, majority Muslims vis-à-vis minority religious groups, and Taliban-inspired militants versus government forces. At the same time the government’s efforts to revise or revoke the “blasphemy laws” that have been prejudicial to religious minority communities are under careful scrutiny.

A breakfast meeting with the Filipino Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Adolfo Tito Yllana, gave us three Catholic bishops a deeper appreciation of how the Pakistani government (as well as our own government in the Philippines) was reaching out to minority groups to forge a just and lasting culture of peace.
In the case of Pakistan, with 96% of its population Muslim, public officials base their efforts in promoting interfaith harmony on the words of its founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who said in 1947: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of the state.”

It is in this light that the joint efforts of the Philippines and Pakistan to promote a dialogue among religious traditions instead of a “clash of civilizations” will have far-reaching consequences in other parts of the globe. A world without wars can only begin when religions are at peace, and the state treats all religions equally.

(Published in Impact in March 2010)

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