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By Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ

The month of February has been an auspicious start for this year 2019 for the communities of Mindanao. On Feb. 4 in Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, signed a joint document on "Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together." This was addressed to the peoples of the East and the West, particularly to the world-wide Christian and Muslim communities represented by the Catholic Church and Al-Azhar.

The document starts with the summary statement: "Faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved." It goes on to note the somber realities of the poor, the marginalized, orphans, widows, refugees, victims of destruction, calamity and war, and particularly the victims of religious extremism and hateful ideologies. It points out some of the major causes of the crisis of the modern world, such as "a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic place of supreme and transcendental principles."

To counter this, both religious leaders "declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard." "Dialogue among believers," for the Holy Father and the Grand Imam, "means coming together in the vast space of spiritual, human and shared social values and, from here, transmitting the highest moral virtues that religions aim for."

The joint statement calls for the protection of places of worship, perhaps alluding to the bombing of the Catholic Cathedral in Jolo on January 27, 2019. It condemns terrorism and its instrumentalization by extremists "due to an accumulation of incorrect interpretations of religious texts." Both supreme religious leaders declare "that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood." They further state: "God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want his name to be used to terrorize people."

While deploring religious-inspired violence, the document also notes that "situations of injustice and lack of inequitable distribution of natural resources -- which only a rich minority benefit from, to the detriment of the majority of the peoples of the earth -- have generated, and continue to generate, vast numbers of poor, infirm and deceased persons."

Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb thus call for the protection of the rights of women to education and employment, the rights of children to grow up in a family environment, and the rights of the elderly, the weak, the disabled, and the oppressed. "It is likewise important," they note, "to reinforce the bond of fundamental human rights in order to help ensure a dignified life for all men and women of East and West." The joint statement concludes with an invitation to reconciliation and fraternity with the aim of attaining a universal peace for all in this life.

The second event that augurs well for peace in Mindanao was the oath-taking of the members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority(BTA) in Malacanang on Feb. 22. This follows the results of the plebiscite on Jan. 21 and Feb. 4, which led to the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Addressing the newly-appointed members of the BTA, President Rodrigo Duterte stated: "We share your dreams and aspirations. But most of all, we would like to see an end of the violence that has rocked Mindanao and has cost so many lives for nothing." The BARRM will be composed of the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, the cities of Cotabato, Marawi and Lamitan, and 63 barangays in North Cotabato. Although there are still several hurdles to overcome, such as the inclusion of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) expectations under Nur Misuari, the challenge of a new beginning for the development of Muslim Mindanao falls on the shoulders of the leadership of Interim Chief Minister Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and his former comrades-in-arms in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

A third event directly relating to our home situation was the convening of a "Peace Conversation" in Cagayan de Oro on Feb. 28 - Mar. 1 for Northeastern Mindanao, comprising Caraga region and the provinces of Bukidnon and Misamis Oriental. This was sponsored by the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP), of which I am co-chair. Representatives from the IFI, UCCP, PCEP, diocesan Social Action Centers, religious sisters, Lumad communities, the military, OPPAP and other government agencies participated in a free-flowing conversation about the conflict situation in various localities. In many instances, the discussions and sharing exemplified what the religious leaders in Abu Dhabi were calling for -- towards a culture of dialogue, of respect for human rights, and for reconciliation among children of the same God. The goal for a just and lasting peace still lies ahead, but the first steps along the same road have been taken.