Persecution of Christians calls for alliance with moderates in other faiths.
Just one verse each day.
A more intense interfaith dialogue and an alliance between Christians and the overwhelming majority of Muslims is needed in the face of a rise in radical Islamism in various parts of the world, two priests attested this weekend.
A priest who witnessed the Easter Sunday bombings of Christian places in Sri Lanka and a Church leader who is involved in the peace process in the southern Philippines spoke about their experiences Saturday evening at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Msgr. Romeo Saniel, vicar administrator of the Vicariate of Jolo in the Philippines, and Fr. Neville Fernando, TOR, spoke at Aid to the Church in Need’s second annual Vespers for the persecuted Church.
A member of the Daughters of St. Paul religious community from Lahore, Pakistan, Sister Ghazia Akhbar, was scheduled to speak but was unable to get a visa for travel to the United States.
At the event, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, delivered remarks, and the faithful venerated a chalice that had been hit by a bullet in Iraq (photo above).
Msgr. Saniel recalled an incident that took place 17 years ago when he was bringing Communion to sick Christians in downtown Jolo in the Southern Philippines.
“I noticed two young Muslims walking behind me,” he said. “Suddenly, one of them pulled out his gun. I felt the cold nozzle of a .45 caliber pistol at the back of my head then I heard CLICK. Miraculously, the weapon jammed. My military escort pushed the assassins away and fired warning shots, but the two young Muslim boys vanished into the crowd.”
He said that since that brush with death, he has devoted himself to interreligious dialogue. It’s a work that his religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, has prioritized since the arrival of the first seven American missionaries in Mindanao in 1939. “They implemented interreligious dialogue as their flagship program, which to this date contributes to peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians,” he said. In addition, the Church in Mindanao has always sought to address the historic roots of the armed conflict by supporting the Moro people’s struggle for self-determination.
But radical Islam is on the rise in the Philippines, as demonstrated by the 2017 siege of Marawi City by an Islamic terrorist organization, the Maute group. And just a month after Saniel was appointed vicar administrator of the Vicariate of Jolo, jihadists bombed Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, on January 27, 2019. Two explosions killed 22 people and wounded 116 others. The strike was claimed by ISIS-affiliated militant organization Abu Sayyaf.
In an interview, Saniel pointed to the resurgence of Wahabbism, which has a more radical, extremist approach to the practice of Islam. He said that some of the remnants of the Islamic State group are now in Malaysia and Indonesia, and some have reached the Philippines.
Jihadism in Mindanao should be understood against the backdrop of the 40-year Moro separatist conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced millions, said Saniel, who has participated in several rounds of peace negotiations between the Philippine government and militant Muslim factions.
Factors such as poverty, lack of access to quality education, corruption and poor governance, personal and historical injustices, discrimination, and ideology contribute to the radicalization of Filipino Muslims, he said.
“Muslim youth are attracted to these groups due to the articulateness of violent extremist recruiters, the use of traditional religious spaces for their recruitment activities, and the use of religious activities as a disguise for indoctrination,” he said.
Msgr. Saniel estimates that only 1% or 2% of Muslims in the Philippines belong to extremist groups.
“We are really trying to unite and engage moderate Muslims who are peace-loving to stand and say something against this group which is destroying the good relationship between Muslims and Christians,” he said in an interview. And there seems to be a response. After the cathedral bombing, he noticed that the peaceful majority of Muslims were “trying to reach out to us now and support us. They are more vocal; we see them speaking against this group, unlike before,” when they were just quiet because they were afraid of intimidation by this group.
“Some of my Muslim friends say ‘We are ashamed.’ I ask why. ‘Because Islam is destroyed by this group.’”
In Sri Lanka, meanwhile, Fr. Fernando was one of the first responders to arrive on the scene of the Easter Sunday bombing of St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo this past April. That day, suicide bombings of three churches and several hotels killed more than 300 people and wounded more than 500 others.
Fr. Fernando lived just across the street from the church and was standing outside, talking with a friend before Mass began.
“We saw the bomber carrying his backpack cross our path twice,” he said. “I entered through the main gate of the church and suddenly I heard the explosion. Black smoke was spreading everywhere. I ran towards the church and saw dead bodies strewn across the floor. There were many body parts, heads, legs, and hands, moistening the church floor with blood. There was lamentation and screaming of the people looking for loved ones. It was such a horrible sight.”
Fr. Fernando and others began taking wounded men, women and children to hospitals. “Almost all of them were in critical condition; some of them died on the way; others would die in intensive care units,” he said.
He said that the archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, took immediate steps to maintain a peaceful atmosphere in the area.
“He asked all Catholics in Sri Lanka not to seek revenge or to get involved in any mode of violence against Muslims brothers,” Fernando said.
In the wake of the violence, he said, religious unity in the country was “strengthened immensely.”
He said that although the Easter attack made headlines around the world, there have been other persecutions due to social and cultural misunderstandings. Assaults have been carried out by Buddhist nationalists, and there has also been a rise in attacks by Hindu extremists. A Buddhist mob threatened a Methodist congregation as recently as Palm Sunday 2019. In addition to outright attacks on churches, anti-Christian harassment and discrimination include denial of burial in public cemeteries and refusal to enroll Christian children in school.
Part of the problem stems from the actions of certain fundamentalist Christians themselves, some of whom conduct evangelization efforts in such a way that provoke non-Christians, Fernando said.
“Some Protestant communities go into the Buddhist communities to convert them by giving money,” he said in an interview. Fundamentalists sometimes discourage local residents from using modern medicine. In one case Fernando cited, a family member got sick, and the church people discouraged the person’s family from taking her to the doctor. “We will pray,” they said. “Jesus is a healer, and she will be healed.” The sick person died the next day.
He said that Negombo, where one of the blasts took place, is a mainly Catholic area, evangelized by his Franciscan forebears 100 years ago. Nearby is a Muslim community. But there are extremists there who are seeking conflict between Muslims and Christians.
“We must not allow this to happen. We must work hard together to bring healing,” he said, calling for more of the kind of interfaith dialogue in which he is engaged. “It helps a lot to maintain peace and harmony and unity among the different religious and ethnic groups,” he said.