Our Common Denominator: PEACE

June 29th 2006

Christian and Muslim children spend their summer in search of an elusive peace

Most of the victims in the ongoing conflict between Christians and Muslims in the South are young people. Combatants – whether Muslim fighters or government soldiers – are typically in their teens to 30s. The dead, the wounded and the imprisoned are, therefore, mostly young. Among those who flee from the fighting, children are likely the first ones to suffer from hunger, sickness and stress. They’re more vulnerable than their elders.

Adults are having difficulties looking for solutions. Perhaps it is time to look at the problem from the point of view of the young.

This is what 29 students (15 Christians and 14 Muslims) from the Ramon Avanceña High School did when they assembled for a Peace Camp in Taytay, Rizal, May 8 to 12 this year.

Peace far from where the real troubles are

The Camp is part of a project called “Impressions of Conflict, Expressions of Peace.” Organized by the Communication Foundation for Asia (CFA), the project is aimed at promoting Christian-Muslim reconciliation using children as catalysts of change.

CFA is a lay organization dedicated to using media for integral human development. At first, CFA thought of holding the Peace Camp in Mindanao. CFA presented the idea to the Episcopal Commission on Inter-Religious Dialog (ECID) – a subset of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). ECID officials said several organizations were already holding similar camps in Mindanao. Why not hold it in Manila, where a large and growing Muslim population exists? Muslims in the city suffer from culture shock and experience a sense of alienation. Tension between Christians and Muslims in the city can result (and on occasions have resulted) in confrontation.

CFA sought a second opinion from the Protestant side – the National Council of Churches of the Philippines (NCCP), which also has an active program of inter-faith dynamics. The same advice was given – Christian-Muslim peace is as needed in the North as it is in the South. Muslims are fanning out not only in Metro Manila but in other parts of Luzon as well. Steps need to be taken to encourage mutual accommodation even at this point.

A laboratory in Quiapo

Where to get the participants for the Camp? ECID pointed at Avanceña. This Quiapo high school has a 60:40 Christian-Muslim ratio in its student population. While there are no reported violent clashes of the West-Side-Story type, quarrels (between Christians and Muslims, and among the different Muslim tribes themselves) do occur in Avanceña from time to time. The situation, though not critical, could stand improvement. Avanceña, in short, is a mini-laboratory of society at large in terms of Christian-Muslim symbiosis.

Avanceña’s principal, Dr. Virginia Bermudez, immediately found the project appealing. But she had to get the approval of her superior, DepEd District Superintendent Dr. Ma. Luisa Quiñones, first. When she did, Dr. Bermudez next met with the officers of the school’s Parents-Teachers Association and got their support. With the PTA officers on board, it was easy to get the other parents to allow their children to join the Camp.

From the start, CFA and Avanceña aimed at a Camp crowd that would be half-Christian/half-Muslim; half-boys/half-girls. Thirty-three students indicated willingness to join. (When the Camp started, the number was reduced to 29. A few could not get their parents’ permission on paper.)

Dr. Bermudez did not want the Camp to interfere with the children’s regular schooling. The Camp was calendared for the Summer of 2006, during the children’s long break.

Main considerations

In designing the course outline for the Camp, CFA and Avanceña worked from three take-off points. First, it was deemed necessary to explain to the children why Christians and Muslims got to be different. “We had to take them back to the roots of Christian-Muslim conflict, from the Spanish time to the present,” says an officer in CFA’s Training Department. “We had to acknowledge the fact that for a long time, the powers-that-be had placed the Muslims in a position of disadvantage – through neglect, abuse and hostility. We had to explain the divide-and-rule policies of the old colonizers, and the callous disregard of Muslims by past governments in the name of development.”

There were some, during the planning stage, who wanted to skip the flashback and take the children right away to a happy present and future. This move was rejected. “You can’t gloss over the conflict,” the CFA spokesman explains. “It’s 500 years old. Some of these children had relatives or friends who were victims of the conflict in the South. You can’t say, ‘Forget those. Those didn’t happen.’ While we didn’t want the children to eat, drink and breathe conflict during the Camp, at the same time we couldn’t be in denial of realities. No admission of sins, no healing. What we did want to tell these kids was, ‘Look, these are our fathers’ sins. It’s not fair that we should keep on paying for them.’”

Second, the planners wanted to capitalize on commonalities, not differences. Not only do Christians and Muslims come from the same Malay stock, it was pointed out; they are also both “People of the Book.” Many of the characters in the Qur’an are also found in the Bible. The Muslims’ Prophet Ibrahim is the same Abraham that Christians know. Musa in the Qur’an is Moses in the Bible. Yakub, Jacob. Yitzhak, Isaac. Sulaiman, Solomon. Maryam, Mary. Issa, Jesus.

“The overriding commonality, of course,” it was pointed out, “is the desire for peace. During the Peace Camp, the Muslim kids were asked, ‘Who among you want to grow up to be terrorists?’ Nobody raised his hand. The Christians were asked, ‘Who among you want to exploit Muslims someday?’ Again, no hands. Then, the punchline, ‘Who among you want to have decent and peaceful lives when you grow up?’ Twenty-nine hands shot up; even the parents and teachers who came as chaperones. That’s our common denominator: Peace.”

Lastly, the planners wanted to give the children the means to give concrete form to their thoughts and feelings about conflict and peace. It was decided that during the Camp, the children would be taught creative writing, music, dramatics, photography and video production.

All of these needed money. A Christian funding organization in Germany, the Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst e.V. (Church Development Fund), agreed to underwrite a large part of the project cost.

Other organizations soon joined the list of project partners, including the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) and Hibla (an advocate of ethnic music). The Young Moro Professionals Network and the Center for Moderate Muslims were tapped to make sure that Camp activities would be Muslim-sensitive.

“Muslim-sensitivity” meant that although the Camp was co-ed, boys and girls would have separate sleeping quarters. A dress code was formulated: Outside of the bedroom, nobody would wear sleeveless shirts and shorts. (Even the trainors and facilitators were asked to follow the code.) Food served would be halal, which meant mostly fish, poultry, fruits and vegetables; no pork. Five times a day, Camp activities would stop to give the Muslim participants the chance to assemble for prayer. (A special prayer room was made available for this purpose.) It was also agreed that while Christians could inquire about Islam, and Muslims about Christianity – the aim was to eliminate misconceptions – there would be no attempt at conversion.

After surveying several facilities, the Maryhill Retreat Center (Bukal ng Tipan, or Spring of the Covenant) in Taytay was chosen as campsite. It was spacious, secure, and it offered a beautiful bird’s-eye view of the city. Maryhill was isolated from distractions (to keep the children from straying out to malls, for instance), yet close enough in case parents wanted to visit their children.

And so, to Camp

On D-Day, May 8, a chartered bus picked up the children from Avanceña (along with some teachers and parents who acted as chaperones, and observers from stakeholder organizations).

At the start of the Camp, children belonging to one side were asked what their first impressions were of the other side. The Christians said the Muslims were commonly regarded as “troublemakers.” The Muslims, on the other hand, thought Christians were “loose,” “arrogant,” and kikays (flirtatious). All of them would change their minds by the time the Camp ended.

The children soon found out that they would have five crowded days that started at 8 am and lasted through no later than 9 in the evening. By that time, most of the Camp facilitators and chaperones would be tired and sleepy. But the children seemed to have plenty of energy left and usually went overtime.

Lectures mostly occupied the first two days of the Camp. CFA’s Training Director talked on the commonalities between Islam and Christianity. It was history time when Ernesto Anasarias of Balai Foundation described the roots of Christian-Muslim conflict in the Philippines. Then, Prof. Jasmin Galace of Miriam College’s Center for Peace Education took over with her discussion of conflict transformation. Galace said there were other ways of resolving conflicts than with bullets.

The second half of the Camp was the workshop part. The students took common courses in creative writing and dramatics. They were then divided into groups that took separate tracks – some to learn painting and music, others to try photography and video production.

Letters to Peace

Asked to write a letter to a hypothetical character named “Peace,” 17-year-old Kaiser Jane Roeger, a Christian, wrote: “Dear Peace: Sana isang araw mapawi na lahat ng hinanakit at hidwaan, nang tayong lahat ay maging masaya. Isang payapang mundo ang aking dinadalangin. Ang mga kamalian, noon man o ngayon, ay magkaroon na sana ng kapatawaran.” (“May it be that one day, all grievances and quarrels [between Christians and Muslims] will cease, so we all may be happy. A peaceful world is what I pray for. May it be that all the mistakes, past or present, be forgiven.”)

Omaira Mamco, 14, said: “Nalaman ko na Kristiyano at Muslim ay pwede palang magsama sa isang bubong. Natutunan ko umunawa sa kultura nila, at magtulungan sa lahat ng bagay. Akala ko noon, kami lang mga Muslim ang pwedeng mag-usap-usap. Iyon pala hindi, mababait din ang mga Kristiyano. Peace, peace, peace. Sana magkita-kita tayo ulit at ipalaganap ang pagkakaisa ng mga iba’t-ibang relihiyon at kultura.” (I learned that Christians and Muslims could live together under one roof. I thought then, only we Muslims could associate. But I was wrong, Christians are good people too. Peace, peace, peace. May we meet again so we may propagate the unity of various religions and cultures.”)

From Anisalam Moner, 13: “Dear Peace: I know that hindi ka gaano lumalabas dahil puro gulo na lang nangyayari. Pls…wag kang magtampo kasi you are very important to us. Without you the world will be dead…You make us complete…I know that pag dumating ang tamang panahon you will show [yourself] to us completely…Wala nang mangyayaring kaguluhan sa whole world.” (“I know that you do not reveal yourself much because there’s so much trouble around. Please…don’t hide because you are very important to us. Without you the world will be dead…You make us complete…I know that at the right time you will show yourself to us completely. All the chaos in the whole world will cease.”)

When asked to visualize peace in the painting class, many of the children chose tranquil landscapes and rainbows. In the dramatics workshop, they produced playlets that highlighted how those of one culture had misconceptions of the other. In the video production workshop, the children were taught how to handle mini-video cameras. (One camera was donated to Avanceña at the conclusion of the Camp.) After only a few hours of instruction, they came up with short MTV-type productions…about peace, of course.

On their last night together, the children paired off – one Christian and one Muslim. In a candlelight ceremony, they pledged to continue their supportive relationships even after the Camp. They also promised to spread the message of peace that they had learned in their five days together.

After Camp, what?

The entire project does not end with the Peace Camp. CFA intends to assemble an exhibit of the most outstanding essays, paintings and photographs produced in the Camp. There are plans to take this exhibit to different places in the country – schools, churches, mosques and malls – for public viewing. The same works shall be featured in a video documentary and an interactive CD, which CFA plans to distribute to policy makers, NGOs, church groups, academic institutions, and other stakeholders in the peace process.

In November, during the children’s next school break, CFA will bring them together again. This time, they shall undergo a course in public speaking. The objective is to form a Speakers’ Bureau. The children shall be made available whenever and wherever there are requests for resource speakers on Christian-Muslim peace.

Already, CFA and Avanceña are thinking of a Peace Camp, Part II. Knowing now that the children can absorb new knowledge quickly, CFA is thinking of teaching them more advanced media – maybe Powerpoint, Desktop Publishing, Web Design or Flash Animation. Whatever medium would spread the message of peace more effectively, CFA wants to equip the children with.

(For more information, please contact Communication Foundation for Asia, Tel: 713-2979, E-mail: emd@cfamedia.org)

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