Catholic Peacebuilding Network

Enhancing the study and practice of Catholic peacebuilding

The Mindanao Bishops-Ulama Conference

According to Brenda Fitzpatrick:

Over the last several decades, various attempts have been made by representatives of religious “parties” to initiate dialogue aimed at improving understanding between Muslims and Christians. Since the late 1960s, religious leaders have held “many serious formal dialogues” to “analyze the problem [of mistrust and misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims].”Annual dialogues in which many Muslim and Christian leaders participate were held from 1967 until the late 1990s, including seminars on Islam and topics such as the problems of Moros and their role in a Christian-dominated society. During the late 1970s and 1980s, the Protestant National Council of Churches of The Philippines (NCCP) implemented a program known as Program to Assist Christians in Education about Muslims (PACEM), with the goal of increasing Christian understanding of the Moro minority. Members of the NCCP as well as Catholics joined in Duyog Ramadan (participating in Ramadan) a program that facilitated young Christians celebrating Ramadan while temporarily living in Muslim communities. During the Marcos years, PACEM, and similar programs of the Catholic Church developed a focus on human rights, including those of the oppressed Moros. However, as Bishop Gomez explains: “When Marcos was overthrown in 1986, the NCCP program for better Christian-Muslim understanding lost its steam, as it was anchored on the militant stance against martial law. It missed the important point that dialogues for a just and lasting peace is beyond fighting for human rights.”

Other notable dialogue efforts include the program for Muslim-Christian dialogue of the Silsilah Dialogue Movement based in Zamboanga City, and the Inter-Seminary Christian-Muslim Dialogue and Exposure Program of NCCP-related seminaries, which ran from 1978 to 1988, and facilitated Protestant seminarians living and participating in community life among poor Moro and Christian communities during summer breaks.

In the early 1990s, religious leaders served as conveners of the National Unification Commission, a venue for identifying root causes of the conflict. An additional initiative, the government-sponsored Peace and Development Summits in key Mindanao cities in 1995 resulted in the Mindanao Agenda for Peace and Development.

In early 1996, peace negotiations between the MNLF and the government of Fidel Ramos had nearly concluded, supported by the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD), under the Chairmanship of Nur Misuari. Although some religious leaders saw this as a confidence-building measure, there was concern in Christian areas that the SPCPD endorsed handing over significant areas to Muslim leaders, though the national government retained overall authority. Daily newspaper articles, many originating from the religious sector, criticized the SPCPD and denounced the President for sacrificing the interests of the nation to please the rebels, appeared almost daily.

Government and religious leaders, both Muslim and Catholic, felt that public input from religious leaders could help to sooth the situation. Dr. Mahid Mutilan, head of the Ulama League of The Philippines and, at that time the Governor of Lanao del Sur (one of the Mindanao provinces with the most significant Muslim population), felt that he and his colleagues, non-rebel Muslim leaders could present a more neutral perspective and clarify misunderstandings. For their part, Ramos’ advisors thought that the support of religious leaders would be helpful for the effective implementation of the agreement, because of their wide networks and close association with Muslim communities through projects introduced to help Muslims. Dr. Mutilan contacted Fernando Capalla, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Davao, then-chair of the Episcopal Commission for Inter-Religious Dialogue, and a long time friend since they had been mayor and bishop of the cities of Marawi and Iligan respectively. At the time, as the peace negotiations concluded, energy for peace initiatives was high, and at an initial meeting of several ulama and Catholic bishops in Manila in July 1996, the idea emerged of a high-level inter-religious dialogue (IRD) initiative that would provide a moral and spiritual dimension to the peace agreement, symbolically demonstrate that dialogue among highlevel religious leaders is possible and act as a body to pressure the MNLF and the government to reach a resolution. The Manila meeting resulted in a resolution, which was presented to the President and contributed to the signing of the peace agreement.

A meeting in Cebu City in November 1996 formally launched the Bishops-Ulama Forum, later renamed the Bishops-Ulama Conference. Regular meetings (three times yearly), were arranged with organizational support from the National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace, the Office of the Presidential Advisor on the Peace Process and CRS. Protestant bishops, who had not initially been involved, were soon invited to join.10 Current active members of the BUC are 24 Catholic bishops, 26 ulama and 18 Protestant bishops and pastors.

Excerpt from Brenda Fitzpatrick, The Mindanao Bishops-Ulama Conference, in Mark M. Rogers, Tom Bamat and Julie Ideh, eds. Pursuing Just Peace: An Overview and Case Studies for Faith-Based Peacebuilders (Baltimore: Catholic Relief Services, 2008): 117-131.