A Filipino army officer, who served in the line of fire in the fight against Muslim secessionist rebels in southern Philippines, says he realised that somehow the cycle of violence must end, so he helped pioneer Project I.S.L.A.M., or I Sincerely Love All Muslims - writes Maurice Malanes.
"I have seen how militarism has failed to address the armed conflict now raging again in southern Philippines," army Lt Col Johnny Macanas, a Roman Catholic, told Ecumenical News International. "And I have noted how prejudice and our lack of understanding about Islam have helped separate us from our Muslim brothers and sisters."
This realisation prompted Macanas to help pioneer Project I.S.L.A.M., which now encourages Muslim and non-Muslim young people to participate in workshops that promote mutual understanding and, eventually, mutual respect for each other's faith.
The project began during an "all-out war" that the then president, Joseph Estrada, launched against the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, from March to July 2000. Macanas at that time was assigned to help rehabilitate 100 000 Christian and Muslim displaced villagers in Lanao del Norte province in southern Philippines.
"Besides the war itself, which made both Christian and Muslim villagers internal refugees, I came face to face with the prejudice against our Muslim brothers and sisters during the government's relief and rehabilitation operation," recalls Macanas, who is now camp commander of the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio City, in the north of the country.
Macanas cites one incident, when he and his troops went to an evacuation centre for Muslims to distribute medicines that were refused. "I asked why," said Macanas, "and a Muslim elder told me, 'What can we do with these medicines when we haven't eaten for three days'. I became saddened at government personnel distributing rice and other food items because I learned that only Christian evacuees were given food."
Then, Macanas said, he prayed, "asking the Lord what I can do to serve our Muslim brothers and sisters, and help bring peace".
Suddenly, he remembered Pastor Florentino de Jesus of the Christian Missionary Alliance who, before he died in September 1999, had advocated that, "Christians should reach out to Muslims with love".
The late pastor from Zamboanga City, also in southern Philippines, inspired Macanas to establish Project I.S.L.A.M. Macanas then mobilised Christian leaders to obtain food, money and construction materials to help rebuild the lives and the destroyed houses and the mosque of more than 300 Muslim villagers in Delabayan, in Lanao del Norte.
"At first, the Muslim villagers were wary of our motives but we finally earned their trust. In fact, Kamlun Moner, the village sultan, proclaimed that he and his fellow villagers had become 'born-again Muslims', who have renounced rebellion," says Macanas.
Now funded by church-based donors and Muslim and Christian entrepreneurs, Project I.S.L.A.M. supports Muslim scholars through the educational workshops it runs for both Christian and Muslim young people.
"The continuing conflict in southern Philippines is deep-seated; there is prejudice and a lack of understanding of each other's faiths," says Macanas. "By growing in our understanding, we hope to outgrow our own prejudices, and from there we hope to march towards peace."
Armed conflict and violence resumed earlier in August 2008 in southern Philippines after MILF forces, who reportedly include teenage guerrillas, went on a killing rampage after the country's Supreme Court, citing constitutionality and sovereignty questions, halted the planned signing on 5 August of a peace agreement that deals with the question of an autonomous Islamic homeland.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]