PHILIPPINES UCAN Commentary – Muslim Woman Brings Yearning For Peace To Rome

MANILA (UCAN) – The participation of a Filipina Muslim in the recent major interreligious seminar in Rome is an opportunity to stop violence in the southern Philippines as well as a breakthrough for Muslim women in general.

This is how Father Eliseo Mercado Jr., an expert on Islam, regards Amina Rasul-Bernardo, lead convener of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy (PCID). The woman took part in the Love of God, Love of Neighbor seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum held in Rome Nov. 4-6.

In a commentary for UCA News, Father Mercado reflects on the significance of her participation in the seminar for efforts of her council and many other civil society groups, including Church-based initiatives, to stop military operations on Mindanao Island in the southern Philippines.

Thousands of people have been displaced in that region as government troops pursue alleged rogue commanders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Those commanders led attacks on communities after the government and MILF negotiators failed to sign a peace agreement in August.

PCID has announced that Rasul-Bernardo carried to the Vatican an appeal to Pope Benedict XVI for help in ending a humanitarian crisis in Mindanao and urging international agencies to aid affected people.

Father Mercado, who leads the Oblates of Mary Immaculate’s Peace Ministry and Advocacy in the Philippines, also notes the breakthrough in Rasul-Bernardo, a woman, being the only Philippine participant among 29 Muslim representatives at the Rome seminar. Shaykh Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Sarajevo, led the Muslim delegation, while Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, led the 29-member Catholic delegation.

Father Mercado expresses trust in the 54-year-old woman from Jolo, in the predominantly Muslim province of Sulu, 950 kilometers southeast of Manila.

She was a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C., 2001-2002. She has a masters’ degree in business management from the Asian Institute of Management, and another masters’ in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in the United States. Her husband Ramon Bernardo, an economist, is a Christian.

In the 1990s, she served as former President Fidel Ramos’ advisor on youth affairs and was the first chairperson of the National Youth Commission. From 1990 to 1998, she was the Muslim representative on the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women.

Rasul-Bernardo is one of more than 50 Muslim, Christian and NGO leaders, professionals, youths, peace workers and advocates involved in Kusogmindanaw, an online discussion group that Father Mercado started and moderates.

Father Mercado, who completed Islamic Studies and Arabic Studies at the Gregorian University in Rome and at the Oriental Institute in Cairo, also talks about A Common Word, an open letter Muslims issued in October 2007. That was a response to an address Pope Benedict gave at the University of Regensburg, Germany, in 2006. The pope’s talk stirred debate and drew angry remarks from Muslim scholars around the world.

The Catholic-Muslim Forum emerged from a meeting this past March of five Muslim scholars and five representatives of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican, following the Muslims’ open letter.

Father Mercado’s commentary follows:

Many in the Philippines and neighboring Asian countries continue to wonder what the fuss about A Common Word is all about. More than a year ago, at the end of Ramadan in 2007, 138 prominent Muslims wrote that letter addressed to all the leaders of major Christian Churches. Among the Muslims representing 43 nations are great muftis (Islamic scholars who interpret Shari’a law), religious leaders, academics and scholars of the Muslim world.

This convergence came about under the auspices of the King of Jordan, and the Aal al-Bayt (family of the Prophet of Islam) Foundation, led by the king’s uncle, Prince Hassan. He represents the best of Islam today, from the point of view of reflection, openness and devotion.

During the forum, Ms. Amina Rasul-Bernardo submitted an appeal letter to the pope through Cardinal Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue (PCID). The appeal, Closest to your heart…, echoes the Koranic passage from Sura 5 where the Prophet of Islam told Muslims that when in need, they would find the Christians closest to their hearts, because in their midst are monks and priests who are not haughty and proud.

The famous letter A Common Word quotes the same Koranic Surae on tolerance: “Had God willed, He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works. Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ” (Al-Ma’idah, n. 5:48).

In many ways, the appeal letter flows from this belief. It expresses hopes that the Vatican Forum would come out with concrete implications of the above passage: “So vie one with another in good works …”

It appeals for assistance or intervention in time of dire need during which peoples of two faith communities continue to suffer, because of war under the guise of pursuing the three so-called MILF renegade commanders. The use of artillery and aerial bombing continue to displace hundreds of thousands of evacuees who have to abandon their homes and farms.

Ms. Amina carried the appeal letter in the name of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy and other non-government organizations that are working for an immediate cessation of hostilities between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

In keeping with A Common Word, Ms. Amina and company have written the pope for humanitarian intervention by way of heeding the twofold call of the love of God and love of neighbor. The internally displaced people need help, and the Philippine government and the MILF need to recommit themselves to a ceasefire.

Ms. Amina Rasul-Bernardo, the lone Filipino participant at the Vatican-sponsored forum, brought with her not only years of experience in dialogue, tolerance and Muslim-Christian partnership, but also a letter appealing to the Holy Father to use his office to promote peace and a just settlement in Mindanao. This is precisely what Ms. Amina and company pray for in their appeal. They believe the pope’s intervention may give Mindanao a real break from the war so that the displaced may return to their abodes and begin rebuilding their lives and livelihoods.

Her group gave a similar letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during his visit to Manila for the October Global Forum on Migration and Development.

When people hear of the forum on A Common Word at the Vatican, they keep asking, who is Amina Rasul-Bernardo and why is she the lone Philippine participant in this Vatican-sponsored forum? And the “courage” to write the pope is yet another issue raised!

She has been my personal friend for years and a partner in peace advocacy in Mindanao. If there was to be a letter of appeal to the pope, it definitely would come from her and her group. It tells of her passion for peace.

She stands for three outstanding things. First, she is a woman of competence. Her studies, research and work in government and non-government organizations speak for themselves. When she served as “minister” for youth in the presidency of Fidel Ramos, she made sure the youth were represented in decision- and policy-making bodies of government at all levels. To her, empowering youth means giving them a “taste” and “feel” of actual participation in decisions and activities involving matters that affect them.

The second trait flows from her belief in and vision of Muslim-Christian partnership, particularly in Mindanao. Is it her religious but “liberal” rearing or her marriage to Bernardo that has made her believe in a community that is all inclusive — that is, Muslims, Christians and indigenous peoples?

I believe the tragedies of war and destruction in the south have made Amina and her colleagues dream of another, better world where all, regardless of belief and culture, become neighbors to one another. This vision also flows from her religious conviction that though there are many communities, the challenge is to compete with one another in goodness and piety — the very passage quoted in A Common Word.

The third characteristic is her work ethic. She is a worker! She would seize any occasion and opportunity to advance her advocacy! Her passion is peace in Mindanao! There are no protocols, no “barricades” that would deter her from advancing the cause of peace, of rebuilding the lives of the internally displaced and to stop the war in Mindanao.

It is an honor and a privilege that Amina has been chosen and invited to the Vatican-sponsored Forum, and I am happy that a very competent Muslim Filipina took part in this forum often dominated by men. The Vatican and the Muslim world often converge on issues about women.

In many ways, A Common Word is a call to remind believers not only of the imperatives of the love of God and the love of neighbor, the theme of the Muslim scholars’ letter and of the recent forum, but also of our dealings with the other half of humanity, womenfolk. Amina would stand out not only because of her competence and passion for peace but also for simply being a woman in the midst of the “world” of men.

What is the chance of the pope’s intervention on behalf of Mindanao peace? From a bureaucratic point of view, the Vatican would definitely acknowledge the letter and inform all concerned of the prayers of the Holy Father for peace in Mindanao. The pope could request the apostolic nuncio to the Philippines to communicate to the Philippine government the Holy Father’s deep concern over the conditions in Mindanao.

On a higher level, the pope, through Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (Vatican Secretary of State) or Cardinal Tauran, or both, would take note of the appeal and include the call for cessation of hostilities and assistance to displaced families in one of his papal addresses, either the regular Wednesday audience or the short message during the gathering for Sunday Angelus. On the same humanitarian ground and charitable works, the pope may ask Churches to help assist displaced people.

In God’s time, peace will reign in Mindanao. Meanwhile, we need people of fire and great passion like Amina and her group members to disturb our comfort and remind us of our faiths’ twofold call for love of God and of neighbor.