Fr. Sebastiano D'Ambra: Mission 'possible' in Mindanao, among Christians and Muslims
Weekends of friendship, meetings between catechists and madrasa teachers, are just some of the initiatives launched by the Silsilah movement. Not giving in to discouragement even when a Muslim boy tells the teacher at school: "Do you know that we can kill Christians?" The memory of PIME confreres, Salvatore Carzedda and Antimo Villano is a stimulus to move on. After 500 years of history in the Philippines (in 2021), Christians should understand that devotion is not enough.
Rome (AsiaNews) - After 500 years of history, Philippine Christians have to understand that faith does not only live on heritage and tradition, Fr. Sebastiano D'Ambra, 75 years old, 51 of priesthood, 40 in Mindanao (Philippines), this week in Rome, warns. He devoted his life to an impossible mission, at least according to some: Encounter between Muslims and Catholics, rediscovering the bond that leads them to the one God. Pope Francis defines it as "the culture of the encounter." "We in the Philippines are talking about a culture of dialogue, because the word" encounter "unfortunately represents armed clashes between Muslim and military rebels." Words and Life. The "bond" that revitalizes the spiritual relationship between Christians and Muslims is called "Silsilah", a term taken from the experience of Sufi, Muslim mystics. It is the name of the movement that was born in 1984, to which Father D'Ambra devoted his entire life. With his two PIME confreres: Salvatore Carzedda, a martyr in Zamboanga on May 20, 1992, and Antimo Villano, who died in Italy in 2010 after having faced MS.
What comes to mind if you think about it when it's all started?
I remember a teacher who asked me, "You have one life alone, how do you intend to spend it?" Words that have been carved into my memory. I remember the debate on Vatican II. The involvement of us, young students, in the evolution of interreligious dialogue. An important factor that pushed many of us into the world. I remember the apprehension in the Philippines and the prejudices between the various parts of society, even in our own eyes. It was my will to always mediate there. Even in the midst of the attacks. Even after being exiled to Italy.
At first Silsilah was not understood, but it is now very much appreciated. Many Christians and Muslims are following this path. Where did these fruits come from?
It is the best-known interreligious dialogue movement in the Philippines. Its heart is represented by Harmony Village in Zamboanga. This movement points to dialogue, starting from spirituality, supported by three pillars: God, others, and creation. To overcome the barriers we propose experiments of coexistence between Christians and Muslims. To start, one weekend in a month, until friendships blossom. Lastly, we organize meetings between Catholic catechists and madrasse teachers to reflect on the importance of transmitting the message of peace to young people.
The current climate, at an international level, does not seem to be conducive to dialogue …
Dialogue is a continuous challenge, despite the old and new obstacles. When I arrived I met the Moro National Liberation Front in Zamboanga City with its legacy and over 10 thousand burnt homes. Then Abu Sayaf came to Mindanao. We are now facing the revolt in Marawi, where the ceasefire has failed to solve the problem. The factors in the field are so many: the ideology of the Islamic State funded by so much money that attracts young people; The attitude of the government who does not know how to deal with the emergency and above all illogical fear that leads to prejudices and violence.
When you found yourself faced to face with this type of violence how did you react
I am Sicilian, a child of war. I have lived Vatican II before and after. Dialogue was an almost negative thing. Many missionaries in history have been heroes. I felt I had to explore new ways of mission. So when I arrived in the out-of-the-way Muslim village, I became acquainted and became part of them. I have earned their respect. I raised my voice against the abuse of the military against the poor and the women. An attitude that gave me strength, later I was called as a mediator by the rebels. They tried to bribe me with indecent proposals. They even tried to take me out. I said, "The rebels risk their life for an ideology, why can not I risk my own for a mission of love?"
How did it end?
It ended that I had to return to Italy. In the years 1981-1982 I studied at the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome. There I elaborated the idea of the common spiritual journey between Christians and Muslims which then represented the foundation of Silsilah.
Your personal story, then, was only at the beginning …
When I returned to the Philippines, I was no longer alone. The idea of Silsilahhad become reality: a community of men and women who wanted to live in peace was growing. So the Abu Sayaff movement wanted us to close the doors. A growing pressure that eventually led to the killing of Father Salvatore. On his coffin we delivered a kind of "certificate" belonging to Silsilah. And on that occasion a single voice emerged: "Padayon" ("Let's go ahead"). But for the second time I had to return to Italy between 1992 and 1995. In those years in Catania, where we celebrated 25 days ago on the 25th of Father Salvatore's death, I started the journey of spirituality I had begun in the Philippines: "Religions in Dialogue". Just as in the Philippines, Silsilah has created the "Emmaus dialogue community" group, whose chairman today is Aminda Esano, a consecrated layman who is fearless. A similar group of Muslims is also emerging, which is called "Muslimah". We can say that we are in the consolidation phase of our experience, but also that we are called to do more.
What are the most obvious obstacles to dialogue experience?
There is often talk of dialogue, but there is no deep conviction that it can happen. There are expressions of Muslims towards Christians and vice versa that are part of a cultural background that seems insurmountable. I myself found myself sticking to the labels and the prejudices. The important thing is not to be discouraged. Never. Even when today at school we hear a Muslim boy say to the teacher, "Do you know that we can kill Christians?" It should be noted that he has heard this in his family.
So what should Filipino Christians and Filipino Muslims do?
Filipino Christianity after 500 years of history (in 2021) should understand that a devotion that does not go deeper makes it more vulnerable. In the face of Islamic radicalism, resources are needed. A diluted faith is not enough. Catholics still have to wake up. They should do a conscientious examination to understand that faith does not live by inheritance and tradition. Islam, on the other hand, should reflect on what contribution it really wants to bring to the world. Maybe whaabism? The conflict between the Sunni and Shiite at every latitude and longitude?