In Malate church a day before departure, I knelt before a blood relic of St Pope John Paul II and prayed for my journey. His own commitment to reconciliation between peoples is legendary as he forgave and later met with the man who tried to assassinate him.
This was my first trip to Mindanao in the southern Philippines, the scene of the siege of Marawi, the effects of which are still felt. What a handful of evil men can do in minutes can take a lifetime to repair in a community.
I went to meet the staff of Duyog Marawi, a group initiated by the Redemptorist order with support from the wider Catholic Church in the Philippines. Their staff and volunteers are both Muslim and Catholic, mostly young people who are committed to peace and understanding and the restoration of the lives of those affected by the troubles in Marawi. Duyog means to ‘accompany’ and the group intends to ‘journey with’ the Meranaw people as they move through the various stages of recovery and development.
I travelled by ferry, the 36-hour journey would give me time to prepare my heart through prayer to meet those I was supposed to meet and to hear their stories and those of their people. It also took my mind back to the last war–torn area I visited some 25+ years earlier. Another group of young people in England formed to take aid convoys to refugees in Bosnia-Herzegovina and to distribute these to all, regardless of religion or origin, Muslims and Christians alike.
Perhaps this ‘remembering’ was what attracted me to the work of Duyog Marawi (DM) and to know more about it as I shared their vision.
The ship was filled with soldiers, many deployed for the first time in Mindanao, they were so young and I diverted some of my prayers for their safety as they work to maintain peace and order and protect the populous.
There is a peculiar tension in the hearts of men; a divided nature between the capacity for love placed there by their Creator and a tendency for destruction and hatred. When I see the photos of Marawi and remember the pock-marked, shell shattered streets of Mostar I see the landscape of the human heart, that battle within, which we all must enter into.
I have heard that the proper interpretation of ‘Jihad’ is actually more akin to what Christians would recognise as ‘sanctification’ – to purify the heart. And we even use the same tools as Muslims, those, being prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Like in Lenten season where we seek to intentionally realign our hearts to God. It’s an internal process. It requires a certain maturity and sincerity of spirit to enter into. Sadly, in all religions, that is not always present.
Duyog Marawi’s work encompasses many areas across four phases of activity; firstly there was work with the internally displaced people following evacuation from the city, providing food, water, temporary shelter etc. Later the work shifted to more community engagement and peace building between Christians and Muslims. Another area, the HILOM project focussed on helping the former hostages to process their experiences – many of them became DM volunteers later as a part of their healing journey. Now they are developing livelihood programs for IDP’s. Perhaps the most critical work though is in countering the ideology of ISIS.
The ISIS groups recruited children as young as nine years old and many families saw their children change from normal healthy children to aggressive, confused and frustrated shadows of themselves following indoctrination by the Maute group at the school that the Maute family operated. But few could see what was to come.
Duyog Marawi operates a mobile ‘Madrasah’ – which travels from place to place to teach the children Islamic values and teachings that will counter the false teachings and enticements of the ISIS recruiters who work in the same territory. They also run two ALS (Alternative Learning System) schools for the older out-of-school youth which achieves the same purpose. The Meranaw community is committed to protecting their youth from ISIS recruiters as the loss of many of their young is mourned, as is the destruction of their homes and livelihoods. The need for vigilance is acutely felt now and the peace builders are on the front lines of the battle for hearts and minds.
As I listened to the three young Meranaw Duyog Marawi staff; Juji, Jam and Hudaifa; it occurred to me that every young person seeks to know and find their part in the larger story, a noble or worthy cause to champion. Each generation (of whatever religious group or nationality) produces its own leaders and they fall into two categories, I noticed.
The terror group leaders are violent, superficial, insolent, and bold. Boldness is a boyish trait, which if not satisfied, quickly dissipates. There is no thought of tomorrow or the consequences; just rage without real purpose. Peacemakers, on the other hand are leaders who exercise a patient, considered response, they are courageous and long suffering. They are the beacons of hope for a shared, common future.
As Christian and Muslim youth unite under a common banner of peace and understanding to protect their communities and nation from those who come only to ‘kill, steal and destroy’ (John 10:10) they become an impenetrable phalanx, interlocked shields that will break the waves of fanciful infantile ideologies that crash against them, with unshakeable resolve and manly courage.
One other thing that was interesting from our discussions was that in the presence of a common and savage enemy, lesser arguments melt back into the background and unusual alliances form. For example, the volunteers work in conjunction with the military to check the areas they will visit are safe; so there is good cooperation between church and state, but also have the support of the MILF (Moro Islamic liberation Front) who see ISIS as a threat to their struggle for autonomy from the central government, which has often been an armed struggle.
My own experiences confirm this pattern, and the need to never give in to prejudices of assuming all those of a particular religion, nation or tribe are bad and another all good – it simply is not true. When my friends and I were taking aid to refugees in Bosnia-Herzegovina we came upon a city under siege, a Muslim enclave on one side of a river, a largely Christian group on the other and to enable both sets of refugees to receive aid we worked with the Jewish community who, by cover of night, were able to take food and supplies by boat over the river to their Muslim friends and neighbours. Unexpected … but there are men and women of good will everywhere.
I returned home to Manila via Cagayan, the ship’s name was St Pope John Paul II! And in the sky, out in the middle of sea, I saw a rainbow, the sign of a promise (Gen 9:16) “ Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” Truly God is with the work and efforts of the Duyog Marawi team. God bless them.