“Building Bridges” was the theme of the Third Asia-Pacific Regional Interfaith Dialogue in Waitangi, New Zealand, on May 29-31, 2007. Fifteen countries from Southeast Asia and the Pacific sent delegates to this regional meeting, led by the four co-sponsoring countries of Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand.

Delivering one of the opening addresses, President Gloria M. Arroyo herself stated that “the Philippines looked forward to creating deeper interfaith ties within the region as together we work towards building bridges for a culture of peace.”

In their Plan of Action, the Waitangi delegates called for building bridges among religious leaders with governments, with civil society groups, and within one’s own faith community. The Waitangi Declaration also called for interfaith education in public as well as religious schools. It cited the key role of media in deepening inter-cultural and inter-religious understanding.

However, barely a week and a half after the Waitangi Dialogue, on June 10th, Fr. Giancarlo Bossi, PIME, an Italian missionary priest, was kidnapped while on his way to saying Sunday Mass in one of the village chapels of Payao, a coastal municipality of Zamboanga Sibugay province in southwestern Mindanao. Payao is one of the 19 parishes of the Prelature of Ipil.

As former bishop of the prelature in 1997-2006, I knew well Fr. Bossi and his PIME confreres who had been establishing several parishes in the former Jesuit mission district of the Archdiocese of Zamboanga. Indeed, Fr. Bossi constructed the first parish church and convento of Payao as it split off from its mother parish of Siay in 1987. With his carpentry skills, he undertook much of the manual work himself. Later on, he would also build the convento and enlarge the parish church of Bayog. As a soft-spoken, hard-working “gentle giant,” Fr. Bossi endeared himself to the parishioners of Siay, Payao, and Bayog, wherever he was assigned.

The Prelature of Ipil itself is no stranger to kidnappings and outbreaks of violence. In the mid-70’s, the district was a theatre of war between Christian and Muslim paramilitary groups, the Ilagas versus the Blackshirts and the Barracudas. In 1985, its first bishop, Msgr. Federico Escaler, S.J., was held hostage with other traveling companions for several days. In 1995, the town of Ipil itself was attacked by the Abu Sayyaf and other rebels, with its market place razed to the ground and more than 60 people killed.

In the following years, two other priests who had worked in the prelature were kidnapped—Fr. Luciano Benedetti, PIME, a confrere of Fr. Bossi; and Fr. Rhoel Gallardo, a Filipino Claretian, who was eventually killed in captivity on the island of Basilan in the Jubilee Year 2000.

Fr. Bossi was eventually released on July 19, after a 40-day ordeal and after losing 40 pounds. He returned briefly to Payao a week later amidst a joyous celebration to thank his parishioners for their fervent prayers for his safety. Yet, Fr. Bossi’s safe return was not exactly a happy ending. During the week before his release, 14 Philippine marines had been killed in Basilan while on a search expedition to find him. Ten of the dead soldiers’ bodies were beheaded and mutilated. With the build-up of military forces in Basilan to go after the perpetrators, war clouds are looming once more over Mindanao.

It is in this context that the Bishops-Ulama Conference, Catholic universities and other Civil Society peace advocates in Mindanao have all called for moderation and a thorough investigation before an escalation of hostilities breaks out. Indeed, the practicable alternative to a Basilan offensive is the resumption of peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Echoing the Waitangi Declaration, “building bridges for a culture of peace” starts here in Mindanao—in the midst of a brewing war zone.

+Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ

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