Building Interfaith Bridges through Dialogue: Perspectives from ASEAN and the Philippines

Jaime de los Santos
A Paper by Jaime de los Santos, President, Hans Koechler Philosophical and Political Society, Professorial Lecturer of Management, University of Philippines, delivered at the 10th Rhodes Forum


Asia is the cradle of some of the earliest human civilizations. Since ancient times, Asia’s landscape has been traversed and crisscrossed by different peoples, races and communities. These confluences and convergences have produced a rich Asian cultural tapestry woven together by threads of the old and the new, the East and the West. Unfortunately, this Asian cultural fabric has been under threat of unraveling at the seams one too many as a result of conflicts and, most recently, terrorism.

Terrorism may arguably be the single most serious challenge facing us all today. Its scope is global - without regard for national boundaries and borders. Its victims cut across nationalities, cultures, classes, ages and gender. It undermines foundations of international cooperation and understanding, and exploits differences and distrusts to create new conflicts. It has assumed different manifestations. And accordingly, in some cases, terrorism can be an offshoot of unraveling baseless religious fanaticism and extremism.

While the world witnessed the growing security unrest, many have reclaimed the potential of religious teachings to promote peace and mutual understanding among diverse cultures and traditions across the world. Hence, the concept of interfaith or interreligious dialogue became a by word. Using the framework of religious pluralism, the key actors underscored common practices and universal positive values common to all faith traditions as common grounds for dialogues.

Following the context of Religious Pluralism, one of the most popular definitions of Interreligious dialogue comes from a document in 1991 called Dialogue and Proclamation which was quoted by Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue during a workshop addressing American Benedictine Abbots in 2005 stressed that dialogue means:

“all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment in obedience to truth and respect for freedom”  

Another important initiative that follows the institution of the “Common Word” principle was the adoption of the World Interfaith Harmony Week thru the United Nations resolution proposed in 2010 by HM King Abdullah II and HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan. The World Interfaith Harmony Week falls on the first week of February of every year. Both the “Common Word Initiative” and “the World Interfaith Harmony Week” stem from the idea that humanity is bound together by the two shared commandments of 'Love of God and Love of the Neighbor' which have both sacred scriptural bases in Christianity and Islam.

Drawing lessons from the above global discourses on interreligious dialogue the ASEAN experience was not an isolated case.

Southeast Asia and the Threat of Terrorism

Southeast Asia, home to more than half a billion people, is a mosaic of four of the world’s great religions—Bhuddism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam—and about 800 ethnic groups. This regional diversity and dynamism are reflections of the “multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural” societies in most Southeast Asian countries.

Generally, Southeast Asian societies and governments are tolerant, representative and responsive. At the beginning of the new millennium, Southeast Asia witnessed how growing Islamist terrorism threatened to drown out the generally moderate voices of the Islamic faith.

The region has its own indigenous Islamic militant groups but the linkages among these groups have been traditionally and relatively weak, with most operating only in their own country, focusing on domestic issues such as promoting the adoption of Islamic law, and seeking independence from central government control.

Beginning in the last decade, the conjunction of several phenomena has allowed terrorists such as al Qaeda to make significant inroads into the region by forging links with domestic radical groups. These include frustration with repression by secular governments, the desire to create pan-Islamic Southeast Asia, reaction to the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the return of mujahideen veterans after years of fighting in Afghanistan, and the negative reaction to globalization - which has been particularly associated with the United States. Globalization has been seen as a threat because it is perceived as an imposition on a people’s identity and culture. The process of modernization, particularly if forced and hasty, can be traumatic for some societies, and the transformation away from tradition puts societies under deep stress.

Over time, al Qaeda’s presence in the region has had the effect of professionalizing local groups and forging ties among them - not to mention the vital link between these previously disparate groups and al Qaeda. Al Qaeda operatives have been involved in three critical tasks, namely: setting up local cells, providing money and training to local terrorist groups, and creating what may be the first indigenous terrorist network in the region - the Jemaah Islamiyah, which carried out the 12 October 2002 bombing in Bali, Indonesia exactly ten years ago and which killed approximately 200 people, mostly Western tourists.

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the Philippines is another known local group which maintains ties with al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah through joint training, particularly in bomb-making. The ASG is notorious for killings, kidnap-for-ransom activities and bombings like the Valentine’s Day bombing in Manila in 2005 which it undertook together with JI-trained Rajah Solaiman Revolutionary Movement (RSRM) members.

Bridging Muslim-Christian Divide through Interfaith Dialogue

One recent discovery of the modus operandi of terrorist groups in the region is how they exploit societal cleavages to propagate their extremist positions. In Indonesia, “Islamist extremists and terrorists have used inter-communal strife…in places such as Ambon and Poso in the Malukus and on Sulawesi, as a means of mobilizing support for their cause and as a way of recruiting members.”

Southeast Asia, given its high cultural diversity, is vulnerable to this “divide-and-rule” tactic by terrorists. Governments and peoples should, therefore, continue if not reinforce current initiatives in interfaith dialogue as part of a broader regional strategy to counter terrorism and preserve diversity. Some of the recent efforts undertaken by ASEAN are listed below.

The ASEAN and its member-states actively promote interfaith dialogues through its mechanisms and regular meetings. Among these are:

The Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) has created an Interfaith Dialogue mechanism in 2005 as “a framework [for] Governments representatives; policy makers, scholars and religious leaders [to exchange] views on religious, social and cultural issues in the spirit of respect, mutual tolerance and understanding.”

ASEAN also annually holds the Regional Interfaith Dialogue to strengthen tolerance and pluralism in the region. Spearheaded by Indonesia and Australia in 2004, the RID has so far conducted 6 annual meetings, the latest of which was in Semarang, Indonesia last 11-15 March 2012.

In 2010, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted the proposal by Malaysia for the establishment of a Global Movement of Moderates (GMM) which combats extremism in its various forms - “political,…religious, ultra-nationalism and radicalism” - with moderation that not only focuses on religion but also includes “all aspects of interfaith, intercultural and intercivilizational relations.”

ASEAN will draw a roadmap where GMM will be done simultaneously at the national, regional and international levels with approaches that are suited to specific contexts and conditions. At the national level, each ASEAN member-state can convene national symposiums and organize community outreach or engagement programs. At the regional level, ASEAN can establish the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR) for workshops and training courses and encourage academic institutions to organize GMM-related activities as Track Two initiatives. On the international level, ASEAN can utilize regional meetings and mechanisms to promote GMM to its Dialogue Partners and link up ASEAN GMM programs with other international programs on interfaith dialogues.

As shown, Interfaith Dialogue is also one of the foundations of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community which is hoped to be achieved by 2015. As such, preserving and deepening religious and cultural harmony within ASEAN is as critical as economic integration.”

The Philippine Experience in Interfaith Dialogue

The Philippines continues to play a key role in the region as “a thought and action leader on interreligious and intercultural dialogue.”  

Similar to other countries in Southeast Asia, the Philippines “is home to 90 known ethnic groups further subdivided into over 150 ethno-linguistic communities.” Although predominantly Christian, the country has a significant population of Muslims principally based in Mindanao and Sulu.


a.      Brief Background

Prof. Julkipli M. Wadi, a Filipino Muslim scholar of the University of the Philippines noted that the first national Muslim-Christian dialogue was held in Zamboanga City on September 19-21, 1974 was inspired by inter-religious dialogue sponsored by World Council of Churches in Geneva in 1973. As a result of that national gathering more local initiatives were in placed citing the Marawi and Tagaytay meetings in 1976 and 1978, respectively.

The travails of the early phase of interreligious movement in the country was briefly described by Prof. Wadi with these following observations:

1.      Dialogue is triggered by problems mainly in Muslim areas;

2.      Inter-religious dialogue is generally government and Church-related initiatives;

3.      Agenda in dialogue were not essentially traditional subjects on religion. They are mostly issues about social, political and economic problems faced by Muslims and Christians particularly in conflict-ridden areas of Mindanao and Sulu;

4.      Subjects of dialogue discussion are mostly topics that have already been discussed previously in dialogue meetings and seminars.

5.      Subjects of dialogue are repetitive and not developing cumulatively;

6.      Participants in dialogue cut-cross a wide spectrum of Muslims and Filipinos that include priests, nuns, lay and traditional leaders, Ulama, professionals and students;

7.      Lecturers in dialogue are normally experts in both Islam and Christianity. While there are many Filipino priests and nuns that have studied Islam, there is no Moro Muslim ever finished any course in Christian theology or history of Christianity;

8.      Recommendations in dialogue conferences are essentially those issues with social, political and economic implications;

9.      As observed, most recommendations with policy implications in inter-faith meetings and forums are generally not implemented by authorities and concerned agencies;

10.    The task of implementing recommendations are left to inter-religious groups, dialogue organizations and some personalities which, in most cases, do not impact on policy and decision-making process; and,

11.    Inter-religious dialogue in the country is faced with contradictory reality. As peace advocates, peace education and dialogue centers increase, violence, conflict and war continue to erupt every now and then in Mindanao.

The above observations affirmed that the Philippine experience in interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians is long (dating back to outset of armed conflict in Mindanao in the 1960s) and broad-based (with participation from civil society organizations, particularly the religious leaders).

From the 1970s up to the 1980s, religious groups established bodies focused on inter-faith relations, to include groups between Muslims and Christians, such as the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference by the Catholic Church, the Program Aimed at Christian Education about Muslims (PACEM) by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines and the Episcopal Commission for Inter-religious Dialogue by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

A milestone year for inter-faith dialogue in the Philippines was in 1996. The signing of the Final Peace Agreement between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Government of the Philippines on 02 September 1996 paved the way for the establishment of the Bishops-Ulama Conference (BUC) on 29 November of the same year in Cebu. Not only did the Final Peace Accord succeed in “’breaking the ice’ between religious leaders,…[it was] also a ‘pioneer’ of interfaith dialogue by becoming the Philippine advocated ‘format’, as well as an important element of the peace process....”

The Philippine experience in interfaith dialogue attests to the important role that civil society plays and the necessity of government-civil society collaboration. It is national policy in the Philippines that “government-civil society partnership shall be strengthened to serve as the backbone of the country’s interfaith advocacy in the international community.”

Within civil society, the Philippines has a rich network of interfaith groups and organizations which, together with the Philippine Government, have been instrumental in fostering a culture of peace, cooperation and development especially in the south of the country.

These lessons are enshrined in the Philippine Plan of Action on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace 2006-2010. This Plan of Action was jointly adopted by members of civil society and non-government organizations active in interfaith activities, as well as officials and representatives of government agencies, drawing on outputs from local, national, regional and international levels.

The Plan is composed of two phases, the first focusing on organizational development and capacity building for interfaith dialogue, and the second on actual programs and initiatives, with the aim that interfaith dialogue will help dismantle the culture of violence which breeds terrorism, particularly:

(a) The improvement of relations and openness among religious leaders engaged in inter-religious dialogue, as well as among ordinary people of varied cultures and faiths who have participated in interfaith workshops, seminars and conferences;

(b) The establishment of better understanding of conflicts and the enhancement of skills in conflict resolution among key stakeholders especially in Mindanao, where the Muslim secessionist movement is most active;

(c) The facilitation of relative peace in conflict-affected communities as a result of the coordinated efforts of local peace mechanisms and civil society initiatives which actively involve local religious leaders and workers as ceasefire monitors and peace advocates;

(d) The fostering of healing and reconciliation among conflict-affected individuals;

(e) The enhancement of cultural and conflict sensitivity in plan and program formulation and implementation; and

(f) The expansion and strengthening of the constituency for peace with the support and participation of more religious moderates, and the improvement of institutional linkages between and among local and international peace and interfaith organizations, as well as between government and interfaith non-government organizations.

Even in its foreign relations, the Philippines remain consistent in its advocacy for interfaith dialogue. In March 2010, Manila hosted a Special Ministerial Meeting on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace and Development of the Non-Aligned Movement. In January 2011, the country sponsored a resolution entitled “Promoting Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue” which was adopted by consensus during the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Among the provisions in the said resolution are:

(a)     Emphasis on the importance of culture for development in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs);

(b)     Affirmation of the importance of sustaining the process of engaging all stakeholders, in particular women and the youth, in the interreligious and intercultural dialogue with the appropriate initiatives at the various levels; and

(c)     Welcoming the efforts made by the media to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue and encouraging the further promotion of dialogue among the media.

The adoption of the resolution sponsored by the Philippines was seen as a major step towards a “’balanced global approach at addressing peace and development concerns’ and…a holistic approach to help solve the challenges to global peace and development.”

As part of a larger Philippine effort in the UN, the Philippines also spearheaded the launching of the Conference on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace at the United Nations in June 2005 which “sought to promote dialogue among governments, faith-based organizations and civil society, and the UN system in achieving international peace and security…It was also a specific program of action in response to the call of world leaders during the 2000 Millennium Summit to engage civil society to contribute to the realization of the Millennium Declaration, particularly the maintenance of international peace and security…The Philippine has identified interfaith dialogue as a means to promote global tolerance and understanding.”


b.      Best Practices in Interfaith Dialogue

The Academe taking the lead for Interfaith Activities

Leading Universities in the Philippines have embarked activities on Interfaith by hosting various conferences both local and international. For instance, the University of the Philippines –Institute of Islamic Studies in 2008 hosted foreign delegates from the United States representing scholars from Purdue, Chicago, Notre Dame in Bloomington and Indiana Universities and representative from leading Islamic Institution in America who toured and conducted lectures on the topics of Interfaith in Metro Manila and Mindanao State university in General Santos City.

The academe has vital role to play in promoting appreciation of interfaith discourses among students who represent the youth sector. Students can actively participate in advocacy for religious pluralism in the country which can lead to a deeper understanding of other faith traditions.

In 2004, the Department of Education issued a Memorandum Integrating Madrasah Education into the mainstream education in the country. As a result of this initiative, schools with Muslim population offered additional subjects on Arabic Language and Islamic Values Education. The program has been successfully implemented in the country including some Elementary and High Schools in Metro Manila where Muslim students’ populations are visible. The Integration of Madrasah education into the mainstream education does not only benefit Muslims students but have provided avenues for Non-Muslim administrators supervising the program for the Muslims become appreciative of the Islamic culture and traditions. Seminars on Islamic Studies were attended by Madrasah teachers along with Non-Muslim teachers and school administrators

Civil Organizations Initiated Peace Efforts in line with Interfaith Programs

In 1999, the Moro-Christian People’s Alliance (MCPA) was organized where Muslims and Christians in the Philippines focused their campaign in shedding religious differences to fight for Muslim people’s rights and welfare, even advancing towards giving full support in the Moro people’s struggle for their right to self-determination.

In 2003 another community-based organization called Initiatives for Peace in Mindanao, a broad and grassroots-based interfaith and multi-sectoral peace movement consisting of interfaith organizations and ecumenical institutions based in Mindanao was mobilized. It gathered Christian religious, Moro leaders, Lumads, lawyers, academics, women leaders, health professionals, artists, youth, local government officials, small entrepreneurs and leaders of Mindanao civil society to launch massive campaign against militarization and to a call for the government’s side to initiate new directions in negotiating peace among the warring factions in Mindanao.

Philippines experience on interreligious movement proved that underscoring the universal religious teachings on love, peace, harmony and respect can mobilized people of different faith traditions in carrying out peace efforts. It is because religious teachings can provide alternative solutions to war and aggressions. It is just a matter of bringing our religious, political and civic leaders to come together and explore transformative values that can be used as parameters in resolving existing conflicts. It is based on the premise that oftentimes religious convictions and extreme interpretations of its teaching can trigger conflict so as it can also be the source for reconciliation and harmony. Finally, education also plays vital role in promoting the principles of interfaith dialogue.


Despite our differences in race, creed and beliefs, we are all but part of the same humanity. If more and more start seeing the world not as between “us” and “them” but as one humanity with a shared future fired up by a common desire for peace, then there is hope that the gap shall be bridged sooner than we all think. In the end, we lose nothing when we start talking with one another for dialogue will lead us, if not to friendship, at least to greater understanding and empathy.