A Philippines massacre which killed at least 57 people may endanger interfaith relations between Catholics and Muslims in the country. The deterioration in relations is in part due to the spread of extremist Wahhabi Islam in recent decades, a priest involved in interfaith dialogue says.
A Nov. 23 massacre in the predominantly Muslim province of Maguindanao killed at least 30 journalists and their staff and 27 other civilians, the Associated Press says. It is believed to be the deadliest single attack on the media.
The journalists were in a convoy to cover a local politician’s filing of his intention to run for governor. Dozens of gunmen allegedly led by a political rival abducted the journalists, raked them with gunfire at close range and hacked their bodies.
Andal Ampatuan Jr., the son of a political warlord, is the main suspect in the case. The Associated Press reports that he has been detained in Manila and faces multiple murder charges.
Speaking to the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), interfaith dialogue leader Fr. Sebastiano D’Ambra said the attacks would exacerbate religious tensions.
Although the killings are widely seen as political, Fr. D’Ambra commented that they are part of a breakdown in interfaith relations on an island conscious of its unique status as a mainly Muslim region.
Fr. D’Ambra, the founder of the interfaith initiative called the Silsilah Movement, has worked on religious cooperation in the region for almost 30 years, ACN reports. The priest said that relations with Muslims have declined sharply since the 1960s.
“Religious dialogue today is becoming more and more complicated because of the influence of groups which do not encourage dialogue between Christians and Muslims,” he told ACN. “Before the 1970s, there was a traditional way of living Islam in this region. Relations between Christians and Muslims were quite good, but for many reasons there has been deterioration.”
The priest said that there has been an “infiltration” of extremists and a spread of Wahhabism, a form of Sunni Islam. He also noted the rise of Muslim insurgency groups such as Abu Sayyaf.
“The decline of Muslim-Christian relations is already serious and will get more serious unless the political situation improves, and, in the context of killings like those [on Nov. 23], I do not see that happening soon.”
Fr. D’Ambra insisted the Silsilah Movement and other efforts at improving Christian-Muslim relations could still succeed.
“The Silsilah movement is working very hard. We have to be convinced of our work for dialogue. If our efforts are to work, they have to be sustainable,” he told ACN.
The movement was begun 25 years ago to create opportunities for interfaith cooperation. It centers on the 14-acre Harmony Village in the city of Zamboanga. The village includes an institute for religious dialogue, a training center, activities for young people from different religious and both a chapel and a mosque.
Fr. D’Ambra wants to expand the movement’s work with a media center to prepare materials for television and radio and to promote religious peace initiatives.
He also is looking to launch interfaith advocacy initiatives to stop employers’ exploitation of workers and resources. One program involves lobbying to stop a mining company from working in an area that would risk cutting off a water supply crucial for villagers.
“We have to remember that there are many groups in Mindanao who work for dialogue. Indeed most groups have a peaceful approach,” Fr. D’Ambra commented.