I hate cold calling. Contacting someone you don’t know and soliciting an offer they may not be interested in. But that’s exactly what I did.
I sent Dr. Potre Dirampatan-Diampuan an email asking if she would be available to speak about her experience as an interfaith peacemaker. Dr. D’s response blew me away. She not only made herself available to me but offered to plan an interfaith dinner to introduce me to several of her colleagues. She asked me for a date, called her friends, and made a reservation at a restaurant with a private room for us all to meet.
And so on a rainy Sunday evening, Dr. D, six of her colleagues, and I gathered at a fancy Italian restaurant in Bonifacio Global City in Metro Manila. I was nervous, given that I had never met any of these women face-to-face and we would be discussing intimate topics such as faith, religion, peace, war, and violence. But as the women trickled in, they all greeted me warmly and conversation flowed naturally, as if we were old friends reuniting after much time apart.
The six women Dr. D introduced me to were kind, welcoming, and intelligent. Between the seven of us, we represent Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, and Baha’i faith traditions. Although we all have different experiences with religion and come from different ethnic backgrounds, we are united by our passion for interfaith cooperation. Each woman contributed a unique perspective in our discussion, yet seemed to be on the same page when answering my questions about the interfaith movement in the Philippines.
Interfaith Success in the Philippines
I received the most interesting answer in response to asking the group if they could identify a specific success in the Filipino interfaith movement. Each of the women explained in their own way that success is difficult to quantify in this type of work. For how can one truly measure changes in peoples’ hearts? Of course there are lengthy sociological questionnaires and interviews that can be done, but those are often expensive and time consuming. However, the women agreed that since the September 11th attacks and the arrival of international terrorism to the world stage people in the Philippines are more open towards interfaith dialogue because of a “perceived need” for it.
A Return to Fear
Following the creation of many grassroots Christian-Muslim peace organizations in the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao (Southern Philippines) at the advent and during Martial Law in 1972 and throughout the entire country since 9/11, there is now an even stronger sense of awareness of interfaith dialogue among Filipinos. However, when violence strikes the Philippines, there is a reflexive “return to fear — uncertainty” and interfaith dialogue loses popularity.
And lately, the Philippines has gotten a double dose fear-inducing violence. President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” has instilled fear in the guilty and innocent alike all across the country. Duterte has ordered his police forces to carry out executions of suspected criminals involved in the drug trade. These extrajudicial killings have numbered more than 7,000 since June 2016, with Duterte showing no signs of letting up (1). Because suspects are not arrested, given a right to legal counsel, or given a fair trial, the innocent are murdered alongside the guilty.
The Philippines has long struggled with domestic terrorism, especially in its southern islands. Weak governmental control, rugged terrain, and a history of religious conflict between Christians and Muslims makes the island of Mindanao and islands in the Sulu Archipelago especially vulnerable to infiltration of militant groups (2).
The rise of Islamophobia and gaining popularity of nationalist politicians in the Western world has also taken its toll on interfaith relationships and peacebuilding efforts. Dr. D. says that sometimes it seems like for every ally the Muslim community makes, they make ten enemies. Misinformation, an unwillingness to learn about Islam, and a host of other factors contribute to the growth of Islamophobia as a global trend.
Women Serious About Education
But these interfaith women are strategically tackling obstacles of prejudice and ignorance by creating and implementing religious education programs for Filipino youth.
Dr. Genevieve Balance-Kupang, an applied cosmic anthropologist, a trustee of Asian Social Institute and five non-governmental peace organizations, as well as the institutional researcher, teaches a course in introduction to world religions and belief systems at St. Paul College Pasig in Metro Manila. Her colleague and peace friend, Ms. Louniza Napay, has taught in both the grade school and high school departments at St. Paul College Pasig for 30 years.
Dr. Shakuntala Vaswani, a former botany professor, has been instrumental in creating and facilitating classes which teach both Hindu youth living in the Philippines about their own religion and educate non-Hindus about Hindu religion and culture in order to combat prejudice against Hindus.
Dr. Potre Dirampatan-Diampuan, who is the United Religion Initiative’s Senior Interfaith Representative for the Philippines, also has extensive experience in both education management and creating peace education curriculum and works as a freelance lecturer.
Dr. Marites Guingona Africa, is a lecturer on conflict transformation and Muslim-Christian dialogue at the Ateneo de Manila University and also works with grassroots organizations affected by conflict.
Ms. Holly Grace Celeste was a technical educator for many years and also works with several Baha'i media groups in the Philippines. She also follows up with airings of radio programs on a community level, doing home visits and establishing classes which focus on moral education and transforming that knowledge into actions that serve local communities.
As you can see, these women don’t just sit and talk about peace among religions, they are actively involved in building that peace from the ground up. Their intellect, commitment, and determination towards building a more peaceful Philippines is what gives me hope that a people living in country struggling with religious conflict, terrorism, and a militaristic government can learn to embrace their diversity and build a more peaceful future for their children.
An earlier version of this article stated that Dr. Dirampatan-Diampuan was the Regional Coordinator in the Southeast Asia Region for URI. Her position has since changed and she is now the Senior Interfaith Representative for the Philippines at URI.