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The Pakistan Visit of Bishops-Ulama Conference

Filed under: Impact Articles |

By Archbishop Fernando R. Capalla

Background and Objective
Sometime in December 2008, Pakistani President Alih Salip Zardari and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo were discussing common concerns in the Asian region. One of them is the UN Resolution of December 2007 on the promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation for peace. Our president mentioned the Bishops-Ulama Conference (BUC) which is composed of Catholic and Protestant bishops and Muslim Ulama. President Zardari was interested in the group, which has been in existence for 14 years, and how it helped in the peace process. Both agreed for the visit of the BUC to Pakistan. They both hoped that this visit and future mutual cooperation would help Pakistan’s desire for observer status in the ASEAN and the Philippines’ same desire in the OIC.

Philippine Delegation
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and the embassy in Islamabad begun to exchange messages with the Pakistan Federal Ministry for Minorities. BUC was informed of the invitation and was requested to reply if a delegation can be formed to share the BUC interreligious experiences in Mindanao. The BUC Tripartite Commission or the governing board composed of 4 Catholics, 4 Muslims and 4 Protestants accepted the invitation and prepared for the visit. It was originally planned for October 2009, then postponed to November, and finally carried out in January 13-17, 2010.

The Philippine delegation consisted of 14 persons from the BUC’s Tripartite Commission and 3 from the government’s Presidential Council on Interfaith Initiatives (PCII), Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), and the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Mindanao (OPAMIN).

The BUC group consisted of Archbishop Fernando R. Capalla, Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, and Bishop Edwin de la Pena of the Conference’s Catholic sector, Dr. Hamid Barra, Judge Abocali Ali, Prof. Salipada Tamano, Prof. Shariff Mohsin Julabbi, and Alim Elias Macarandas of the Ulama sector, Bishop Emeritus Hilario Gomez, Jr, Bishop Danilo Bustamante, Mark Anthony Gomez, and Pastor Purita Bahande of the Protestant sector. BUC Sister Lou Q. Solijon (Catholic) and Alandoni Pala (Muslim) served as secretaries.

Accompanying the BUC were Maria Isabel Tobias of the PICC, Romeo Montenegro of OPAMIN, Edsel Mijares of OPAPP. Since it was an official delegation from the Philippine Government, the entire group of 17 Filipinos was headed by Maria Isabel Tobias who is the PCII Secretary General.

Activities in Islamabad
The Philippine delegation arrived in Islamabad, capital City of Pakistan, in early dawn of January 14 after an 8-hour stop-over in Dubai. We were received by officials of government and our embassy people, and billeted at the Islamabad Hotel. We had police escort throughout the visit. Our first activity was a visit to the office of Federal Minister for Minorities, Shabhaz Bhatti who is a Catholic. After posing for a photo with him and his staff, we were brought to a conference room where we watched a powerpoint presentation of the projects and activities of the Ministry. Before the presentation Minister Bhatti introduced himself and his staff, followed by our own individual self introduction.

From the presentation we learned that the minorities in Pakistan are the non-Muslims, that is, the Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Bahai, and tribal communities. There are two persons representing them in Parliament and by law they are given 5% of the quota of services from the government. One big difference between them and us is, they are not yet organized as a group. We also asked questions and clarifications. When queried about the blasphemy law which has caused death of several Christians, their answer was the law is being reviewed which is the common thinking of many in government because it has been misused by extremist. When proven guilty of defiling the Qurán and blasphemy against Allah and the Prophet one is condemned to death.

In the afternoon around two o’çlock, a group of Pakistan ulama and minority groups including a Catholic coadjutor bishop of Islamabad, Bishop Anthony joined us for another dialogue and exchange of views on harmony and peace. We were told later that several came from all over Pakistan. Some Ulama spoke in Urdu with a translator, others were good in English. We also found out that most of the officials in government have studied in Christian schools. After this we agreed to make a joint declaration which was signed by Minister Bhatti and Secretary-General Ma. Isabel Tobias. (The text is at the end of this report.)

After the dialogue with the Ulama and minority leaders we had a press conference. We were asked how we organized and how we were able to promote tolerance and understanding in Mindanao. One media question was our comment on anti-Islamic cartoon in the Netherlands. Dr. Barra said that the anti-Islamic cartoons do not represent the thinking of the majority Christians in Europe just as the anti-Christian sentiments of Muslim do not represent the entire Muslim world.

The day was capped by a formal dinner in our honor at the Marriott Hotel tendered by the Ministry. In attendance were more than 200 persons mostly Ulama, minority leaders, and leaders of Parliament. I conveyed the words of greetings on behalf of our delegations and our people. I was interviewed by a media man and was asked about my comment on the issue of the Muslim minority in Switzerland. We posed for photos with many Ulama after dinner. The two Catholic bishops Lobo and Anthony were also present with several Catholic priests and religious sisters.

The next day, January 15, was spent for brief visits to different VIP personages in Government. Before the official visits, the three of us Catholic bishops accepted the invitation of Archbishop Yllana, Papal Nuncio to Pakistan, for Mass and breakfast. He gave us some information on the situation of Catholics in the country. First we were received by Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi and his staff. He spoke beautiful English and shared with us his belief in peace and harmony through dialogue. When asked about a possible return visit of Pakistani Ulama to the Philippines, he enthusiastically agreed and even promised to accompany the delegation. He also confirmed the need of reviewing the blasphemy law. Personally he is against the suicide bombings by extremists.

Next stop was at the Office of the Chairman of the Parliament who is a lawyer, Farooq H. Naek. He also confirmed the need of revising the blasphemy law and expressed his conviction on the need for interfaith harmony and dialogue.

From the Office of the parliament Chair we were assured with the Office of the Deputy Speaker Faisal Karim Kundi in the same building and his assistant. They are two young parliamentarians who explained the representations of the minorities in the Parliament.

Our last encounter that morning was a short time visit to the Prime Minister who also confirmed the need for interfaith dialogue and harmony for peace. He was quite in a hurry but we appreciated his giving us some moments. After this we had a late lunch with Minister Bhatti and his staff at the Marriott Hotel.

We had a good rest in the late afternoon. It was winter in Pakistan, and the temperature was 4 degree Celsius. In the evening the Philippine officials and personnel treated us to a buffet dinner at the Serena Hotel, a beautiful building made of brown coloured marble.

Our last day, January 16, began with a visit to King Faisal Mosque, said to be one of the largest in the Middle East. A guide shared with us the history of the huge edifice, the years it took to build, the cost and the capacity. We had to take off our shoes and it was a sacrifice because of the freezing temperature. But we managed on bare feet.

Our last encounter with government officials was with the Ministry for Religious Affairs under Syed Hamid Saeed Kazmi. With him also was the President of the State University of Islamabad. In the course of our dialogue Alim Elias Macarandas asked if help can be extended to Muslim Filipinos in Pakistan who need visa to Mecca. The answer was for Filipinos to get it in the Philippines. Dr. Barra acknowledged the leadership of Pakistan in the intellectual development of Muslims and proposed some kind of mutual collaboration. I asked about the relationship between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country. Kazmi said the conflict started only 25 years ago but in the beginning there was peace. We had photos and snacks after the session.

From here we motored to Rawalpindi, a 45-minute drive out of Islamabad, to visit the Catholic Cathedral and Bishop Lobo. Before lunch with Bishop Anthony and the Daughters of St. Paul, the sisters and a youth group sang for us and showed us a power point presentation of the sisters’ apostolate. After lunch we visited Bishop Lobo who was very sick. Just before leaving Rawalpindi the Minister and his staff, who had joined us for lunch, surprised us with the information that at 6 p.m. five of us—Dr. Barra, Prof. Tamano, Archbishop Ledesma, Secretary General Tobias and myself will be interviewed on national Television about our entire visit so that the entire country would know. But 30 minutes before 6 p.m. we were informed that the talk show was cancelled because media people had to go to Lahore Province where the President Zardari was to make an important speech.

After supper and a good rest, we were brought to the airport to prepare for our flight at past midnight to Dubai and Manila. We were asleep when the Emirate aircraft landed at Dubai around 2 a.m. of January 17, 2010.

The Joint Declaration
We were generally impressed by the interest of the Pakistani government officials in our group and in the promotion of interfaith harmony as expressed in the following declaration which I read for the media:

“We, the representatives of the Bishops-Ulama Conference, the Republic of the Philippines and the Ministry of Minorities, have reached the following decisions after a day of long consultation on the issues of interfaith harmony and conditions of Minorities in Pakistan and the Philippines:

1. We will continue to share the ideas of harmonizing the society and inculcating peaceful co-existence in our countries.

2. We will share information to cooperate further for inter-religious inter-active planning.

3. We will also arrange exchange of delegation to know each other’s experiences for creating a tolerant and peaceful society.

4. We will encourage the study and replication of successful programs for inter-religious fraternity and harmonizing the society for peace, love and tolerance, which is the essence of all faiths.

5. We appreciate the efforts of the Government of Pakistan for fighting extremism and terrorism through strengthening the institutions for interfaith harmony”.

(Published in Impact in March 2010)

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