August 2022
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E. Mercado: Building Bridges between and among Peoples of Living Faiths…


In times past, conflicts, poverty, religions and ethnocentrism in all forms helped shape inter-cultural and interreligious discourses. These discourses in many parts of the world are often marked by violence and intractable conflicts following religious as well as ethnic divides in our pluralistic world.

On the other hand, advances in science and technology and the leveling of frontiers and boundaries have all contributed to a greater awareness of the pluralism of faiths, culture and peoples, not only in the world but also in our own community.

Yes, we live amid many and diverse faiths, cultures and peoples. Though many and different, we need not be hostile or indifferent to each other. In fact, these diversities invite us to make a shift in our paradigm from hostility to partnership, from indifference to involvement, and from being closed to being opened to one another.

This relational paradigm teaches us that, notwithstanding our differences and diversities, we all live on this earth, in fact, on this piece of land. The bottom line is the affirmation that we are together in the journey through life. For better or worse, we are neighbors and we hope and believe that as neighbors, we can be partners in building not only a better world but more so a friendlier community where you and I, and our children live as brothers and sisters.

Three Steps…

I offer three steps to move our relationship forward, especially after the Paris Massacre and Sydney Siege and similar tragedies that drive peoples to “exclusive” nationalism, once again.

The first step is to take our pluralism seriously. Yet, notwithstanding pluralism, we need to seriously experience our ties or bonds that unite us together.

Second is to be open to learn not only from each other but more so to live with each other in tolerance and respect. Yes, this requires us to accept, to trust and to live together as neighbors and stakeholders.

Third is our commitment to guarantee the rights and dignity of every person regardless of ethnicity, faith, gender, culture and color within our society and community.

The basis of this commitment is our belief that all peoples, even though they belong to different ethnicities, religions, nations, etc., all form ONE human family, created by the ONE and the same God, living in the same world/community, and destined for a common end.

In inter-religious relations there is one WORD that can describe our efforts and endeavors – TRUST! Trust is NOT a universal element in human relations. It has to be slowly, patiently and sometimes painfully built and nurtured through time.

I take a portion of Pope John Paul II’s address at Casablanca, Morocco on 18 August 1985:

People do not accept their differences. They do not know each other sufficiently.

They reject those who have not the same civilization. They refuse to help each other. They are unable to free themselves from egoism and from self-conceit.

But God created all equal in dignity; though different with regard to gifts and talents, mankind is a whole where each one has his/her part to play.

The worth of the various peoples and of the diverse cultures must be recognized.

The world is as it were a living organism. Each one has something to receive from the others and has something to give to them.

A new look at our relationship has become a compelling urgency today as new militant radicalism and “terrorisms” confront nation states, faith-communities and peoples of goodwill.

There are several slogans that try to capture the threatening realities we live in. There is the famous slogan, “Clash of Civilizations,” that Prof. Samuel Huntington referred to in describing the political, ethnic and religious conflicts that have intensified in the post-Cold War era. A corollary to this “Clash of Civilizations” formula is the post 9/11 US Government’s slogan, the “Axis of Evil,” with its concurrent “War against Terror.

Then there is the emerging slogan, “Arc of Crisis,” referring to the geographical coverage of the manifestations of militant Islam – extending from the Middle East to Europe – the Balkans, Chechnya, the Caucasus, the newly emerged Central Asian Republics; North African States – Libya, Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia; and to Afghanistan to South Asia and Southeast Asia now being “contemplated” as the Second Front in the “War against Terror.

Radicalism and its more militant manifestations are not a monopoly of one single faith community. They go by different names and they have common goals and features that threaten not only the security or lay character of our communities but more so the integrity and our fidelity to the Word of God and the traditions we have received through the years. By whatever names they go by, they invoke the NAME of God as their rallying/battle cry in complex and numerous violent struggles and conflicts within that “Arc of Crisis.”

What are the stakes and where do we situate ourselves…?

In a more materialistic consideration for the West and for all industrialized countries, the first critical stake is the fact that within the so-called “Arc of Crisis” are located vast oil and natural gas reserves and points of pipeline delivery. The said “Arc” is home to approximately three-quarters of the world’s oil and gas reserves (Djerejian: 1996). Any development in the Arc impacts the energy supply, energy security and indeed pricing. In short, it impacts the very lifeline and preservation of the present status quo.

The second urgent stake is the reality that the continued and prolonged conflicts in the Arc unsettle, to say the least, the stability not only of countries within the Arc but also regions, thus further slowing economic reforms, development and “democratization.” This is very crucial in addressing not only the issue of growth and expansion of trade in our globalized era but also the issue of poverty reduction and development worldwide.

Many claim that the tragedies of 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have exacerbated the ever-widening divide between the western world and the world of Islam.

In the Sudan, two decades of civil war between the Arab North and the African South have caused untold inhumanities and destruction of lives and property. The war displaced four million people before a comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 2005. While there is relative peace post partition of the Sudan, the slow phase of social reconstruction and still slower interreligious and inter-cultural dialogue threaten the peace and security in Southern Sudan.

Europe is no exception to the reality of cultural divides. In many ways, globalization has accelerated the movements of peoples. And when peoples move, they also bring with them their specific cultures and religions. The riots in France just a few years back and the recent tragedy in Paris were reminders to all that Europe is now composed of multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities.

The dissatisfaction has little to do with Islamic fundamentalism. It is the anguished scream of a lost generation in search of an identity, children caught between two cultures and belonging to neither – a rebellion of kids who, born in France and often speaking little Arabic, don’t know the country where their parents were born, but who feel excluded, marginalized and invisible in the country in which they live.

In 1990, Francois Mitterrand, France’s then Socialist President – described what life was like for jobless ghetto youths who were housed in the overcrowded “cités”:

What hope does a young person have who’s been born in a “quartier” without a soul, who lives in an unspeakably ugly high-rise, surrounded by more ugliness, imprisoned by gray walls in a gray wasteland and condemned to a gray life, with all around a society that prefers to look away until it’s time to get mad, time to FORBID.

Mitterrand’s perceptive and moving words remained just that – words – because his urban policy was an underfunded, unfocussed failure that only put a few “Band-Aids” on a metastasizing cancer. The hopelessness and alienation of these ghetto youths and their “gray lives” has only become deeper and more rancid.

Similar things can be said about the Turkish population in Germany or the multi-ethnic inhabitants of the Netherlands, Spain and Great Britain – all children of former colonial subjects or the more contemporary immigrants. In many cases, these former subjects were factory laborers and menial workers in jobs that there were no Europeans to fill. These immigrant workers, primarily from North Africa and Turkey, were desperately needed to allow the economy to expand due to the shortage of male manpower caused by the two World Wars, which killed many Europeans.

New winds blowing and shaping new platforms of dialogue and solidarity…

While all of these concerns are still valid and are still being raised in many new fora, a new shift has taken place in the understanding of interreligious and intercultural dialogue vis-à-vis the great challenges of the new millennium. New platforms for interreligious and intercultural discourses are now emerging.

On the eve of the new millennium, a new development surprised both the state and non-state actors in a summit of world leaders at the United Nations when they agreed to confront the major problems of the planet. The consensus was unprecedented because they not only identified the issues and concerns that ailed the world, but they also committed to provide the wherewithal to accomplish the goals by 2015. Despite the failures to achieve the goals, basic issues and concerns are raised and confronted globally.

The issues and concerns are now popularly known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). The 8-point agenda includes halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, providing universal primary education, and building international partnership by the target date of 2015. The MDGs form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions. For the first time, the United Nations, led by the leaders of about 20 developed countries, has galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.

Next came the surprising choice for the Nobel Peace Laureate for the year 2007. Former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore and the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN agency, were honored for their work and advocacy to raise global consciousness about global warming.

This was followed by a “pilgrimage,” sometime in October 2008, by a group of prominent religious leaders under the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His Holiness Bartholomew, to somewhere in Iceland to see with their own eyes the impact of global warming. They came, they saw, and they were shocked that the melting of the glaciers now threatens the survival of the planet. We are now all considered “endangered species” either by inundation or by hunger. As the Patriarch beautifully captured in his message to the world: “We have to rethink not only our sense of sin… but our sense of morality. At stake now is not just individual lives or the life of a single or even of a group of nations, but that of the entire planet!” It calls for a new relationship – a new solidarity for all peoples across political and ideological boundaries, across cultures and religions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that humans could largely adapt to two degrees of warming, but that a greater temperature increase could cause far more serious consequences, from a dangerous rise in sea levels to mass extinction.

The impact of climate change and global warming would be first felt in agricultural production which will put food security in great danger. Each 1 degree centigrade rise in temperature would cause a decrease in agricultural yield by 10%. The continued rise in global temperature would give not only a specter of less rain or too much rain but also the “unpredictability” of rainfall. The same rise in temperature will wreak havoc on the global water resources and marine resources.

…. in a warmer world, precipitation tends to be concentrated into more intense events, with longer periods of little precipitation in between. Therefore, intense and heavy downpours would be interspersed with longer relatively dry periods. (IPCC FAQ 10.1)

More and more we shall be seeing longer dry periods, but heavier rains in wet seasons. It will be a combination of decrease in the number of days with rain, yet an increase in the proportion of total annual rains contributed by heavy rain. The world would be caught between drought and deluge.

Global warming would, definitely, exacerbate the causes of conflicts in the world. There would be intense competition over resources for less land and water scarcity. The shortage in food and agricultural production can result in internal and external displacement that causes conflict and involuntary resettlements.

The challenge of climate change was taken up at the UN High-level Summit in Bali in November 2007 and in Copenhagen in 2009. It initiated a process that sought a more stringent protocol to consolidate and strengthen further the Kyoto Protocol.

Another equally powerful wind was the UN-sponsored talks on “Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation” beginning in October 2007. This initiative was further boosted by a major UN project called the Alliance of Civilizations, the founding forum of which was held in Madrid in January 2008. In the recently concluded Bali UNAOC in 2014, in all the sessions, participants from non-government and civil society organizations and state actors were enjoined not only to exercise greater tolerance and understanding, but also to explore joint activities and programs, cooperative agreements and partnerships for peace and development, regionally and across cultures, in order to build cultural understanding in the areas of youth, education, migration and the media.

The call to dialogue and alliance of civilizations has become very important with the emergence of a consciousness highlighted by the publication in the mid-90’s of the seminal work of the late Prof. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996). He contends that the fundamental source of conflict in the post-modern world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. He believes that the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. The new divisions in the world are defined not in terms of political or economic systems but rather in terms of their culture and civilization, hence, a “clash of civilizations.” Religions have thus become even more crucial, because they form civilizations and are the defining elements of culture.

A next “wind” came at the end of the month of Ramadan 2007, when the leaders of various Christian churches received, to their great surprise, a letter entitled, “The Common Word.” The letter, addressed to leaders of the Christian faith, was signed by 138 Muslim scholars, and can be construed as a very important step in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

In the letter, the Qur’anic verse on tolerance is quoted: “Had God willed, He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works.” “Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ.” (Al-Ma’idah, S. 5:48)

This sura (verse) is the penultimate in chronological order in the Qur’an. This means that this cannot be cancelled or overtaken by another, according to the Islamic theory of Qur’anic interpretation, “from the abrogate to the abrogated” (nâsikh wa-l-mansûkh). This verse is fundamental because it states that religious diversity is destined by God. The challenge, “So vie one with another in good works” can be a method of dialogue.

This letter is certainly addressed to Muslims also, even if not explicitly. What weight will it bring to bear in the Muslim world, considering that “extremists” continue to kill, persecute and kidnap in the name of religion? Up until now there has been no comment from the Islamic side. With time, this letter can create an opening and a greater convergence on the more delicate issues of religious freedom, the absolute value of human rights, the relationship between religion and society, the use of violence, and other current issues that worry all believers in our world today.

On a parallel track, there is yet another strong wind blowing in the horizon, one that is often characterized by its dynamism and fragility. Youth movements are growing all over the world as young people search for new meanings in their lives and relationships. They also desire, in more creative ways, to participate in shaping the direction and destiny of the planet. Pope John Paul II was able to capture this wind early on in his pontificate, when he launched the World Youth Day Movement in the Catholic Church in the early 1990s. No doubt, the planet will have no future without the young people being put right at the center of the world’s agenda. It is their world today and it is their survival that is at stake!

Finally, from the southern hemisphere comes the “World Social Forum,” a platform for the poor, the marginalized sectors and the developing world, who demand a more active role in shaping a new world social order. Their slogan is: “An alternative world is possible.” The WSF has gone intercontinental from its humble beginnings in the City of Porto Alegre in Brazil. It is now a veritable platform for dialogue and solidarity not only for the growing number of marginalized sectors but also for the world of poor nations seeking to shape a new world order.

Streams that form a river…

There are still people who continue to look for models and paradigms for interreligious and intercultural dialogues. Yet, I believe that world events and new platforms do give us not models but examples akin to tributary streams that shape a mighty river.

In a recent “virtual discussion” on Religions and Peace-making moderated by Marc Gopin, more than 600 participants shared stories of concrete peace-making that are now taking place on the ground. Three fascinating experiences dominated the discussion all throughout the three-week forum.

First was the story of the monk Kaha Ghosananda, the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia’s Buddhists, on using the traditional Buddhist practice to build peace. He showed the way out of the great chasm created by the dynamics of victory –defeat, killer –killed, and enemy –friend. In the traditional Buddhist way, these contradictions are embraced and find resolution in the loving kindness that flows from the heart where seeds of goodness are once again sown.

Second was the experience of Rusmir Mahmutcehajic in Bosnia on the religious roots of tolerance. The story revolved around the Bosnian word “gehuta” which for him held the key to social reconciliation and social cohesion between and among different “sacred” communities. The “gehuta” is often translated as “wrong” or “sin” that violates the connections with all that is in and about us. The basis of “gehuta” is that the door opens to the deepest content of one’s being, the deepest content of sacred communities and the dominant content of each Bosnian inhabitant to re-establish the connections among the inhabitants – Muslims, Christians and Jews – to live together again.

Third was the story of Raya Kalisman, founder and Director of the Center for Humanistic Education in Israel. In the story of the Tower of Babel, God commanded people to speak in different languages so that they would NOT understand each other. In Raya’s center, the teachers and the pupils pray that the day will come when peoples again speak the same language and begin to re-build the tower –the Tower of Peace. This is NOT an attempt to change the world, but an attempt to find a common language, to look people straight in the eye and ask, “Hey brother/sister, how are you?”

No doubt, the underlying socioeconomic and political situations, real or perceived, need to be addressed. There is a need to engage peoples, governments, NGOs and the community of nations to be more responsive to the needs of the people for social justice, more participatory government and more equitable economic growth. The strong reaction to the reduction of faith in the private sphere is not acceptable. Islam takes the lead in asserting its message in the public sphere. Islam is reclaiming the place of religion in the public sphere what was “lost” in the “Enlightenment.” No doubt, Islam like Christianity can address the concrete societal issues of justice, peace and integrity of creation with no shame or embarrassment.

Is it not precisely the “reclaiming” of the public sphere that forms the concrete basis for the inter-religious dialogues among the peoples of the BOOK? Ultimately, the dialogue of life and dialogue of action make us all Believers of Living Faiths, partners not only in our critique of the earth and our relationships but also in that great faith “enterprise” of building a new earth and forging new relationships…

For all the fears, distrust and hostilities between our two worlds, there are interesting, nay, wonderful convergences or “kindredness” between Christianity and Islam.

First and foremost, Christians, Muslims and Jews are all “Peoples of the Book.” Yes, Christianity and Islam share a common monotheistic vision. In the language of Vatican II: “They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to people” (Vat. II, NA, No. 3). In fact, the same Council recognizes the quarrels and dissensions between Christians and Muslims over the centuries and it “now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values” (ibid.).

Christians and Muslims share many key values in common: respect for knowledge, for justice, compassion towards the poor and underprivileged, the importance of family life, respect for parents and elders, and consultations or consensus in the determination of societal/community affairs. These are the very kingdom values that the present Pope Francis constantly repeats in his discourses.

These days, there is a growing myopia not only in our common attitude toward each other, but also in the way we understand the roles of religions and the religious in society. It is a tragedy that the extreme and the superficial versions of Christianity and Islam have temporarily hijacked our attitudes and understanding. Many Christians view Islam in terms of the tragic wars in the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, and the extreme developments in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. No doubt, the extremes exist in both Islam and Christianity, and they must be dealt with. But when used as a basis to judge a people and society, they lead to distortion and unfairness.

Oftentimes, our judgment of each other has been grossly distorted by taking the extremes to be the norm. This is a serious mistake! It is like judging the quality of life in a community by the existence of murder, rape, drug addiction, etc. We have to school ourselves to see that the extremes are rarely practiced and the extremists are, indeed, a very small minority. By highlighting the extremes, we are actually engaged in peddling those unthinking prejudices. The truth is, of course, different and always more complex.

Moreover, in the cases of the world of Islam, there is the urgent need to distinguish the religion of Islam from the practices of some Islamic States. We do not judge Islam by the practices of the Taliban in Afghanistan or the ISIS in Iraq and Syria or in the Levant or by the “fundamentalists” in many countries today. We must not succumb to the temptation to believe that extremism is in some way the hallmark and essence of Islam and/or Muslims. In the first place, extremism is not the monopoly of Islam. Religions and ideologies including Christianity have their share of extremism. The good news is the fact that the vast majority of Christians and Muslims are moderates in their politics. Theirs is the religion of the “middle way” or moderation. Thus, if we are to understand each other, we must learn to distinguish clearly between the vast majority of believers who are moderates and the terrible violence of a small minority who are known as “Extremists.”

The challenge to us today is to learn to understand each other, and to educate our children – a new generation, whose attitudes and cultural outlook may be different from ours – so that they understand too. We have to show trust, mutual respect and tolerance if we are to find the common ground between us and work together to find solutions to the many and varied issues that divide us. We can no longer afford to stand apart from a common effort to solve our common problems of “unpeace” and lack of/little development.

Understanding and movement toward peace has to be two-way. Each of us needs to understand the importance of peace, reconciliation, development and of reflection. There is the necessity to open our minds and unlock our hearts to each other. The Arabic word for this is “Tadabbar!”

We cannot conclude this presentation without recognizing the wounds of the ethnic and religious divides that mar our relationship as people and communities. The wounds are, indeed, very deep and are closely familiar. The trauma and pains continue to exercise tyranny over the spirit of the peoples on both sides of the divide. This is one reason why the relations between and among peoples are, largely, shrouded in mutual suspicion and mistrust. There remains the challenge on either side to rise above the general ignorance and bias that have, for years, characterized the relationships between and among faith and ethnic communities and individuals.

Now that we have come to a critical juncture in defining and shaping our relationship in the context of interreligious and intercultural enterprise, there is a sense of urgency to dare break new ground both in our discourses and actions. Our sacred spiritual traditions need to rise above the heritage of mutual suspicion and fears and address squarely the conflictual relationships that continue to soil the earth and divide our faith and ethnic communities.

Providing the story line…

Where do we locate ourselves within this flux and how do we view our confusion, to say the least, and deep crisis at worst in that new wind that blows and shapes a new world?

More than ever before, there is a need to “re-appreciate” and perhaps even “re-construct” the stories of successes and failures, of power and wealth in the present age now labeled as both “post modernism” and “post ideologies.” I turn to Gil Bailie (cf. Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads: 1996) for the apt description of this age. He takes the person of Bernard (a character in Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves) to depict the modern person. In the novel, Bernard says: “I have made up a thousand stories. I have filled up innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the true story, the one story to which all the phrases refer, but I have never yet found that story.”

I believe that notwithstanding the difficulties, we have to discover the way to the writing of the needed story line… It is there in the story of our family, tribe and clan. It is a “kindredness” shaped not only by blood, but also by our community and eco-system. And our story line is rooted in faith and traditions that form our values, and that lay the foundational set of virtues to move forward together in achieving our goals for ourselves and for humankind. We are darn proud of our story and we share it with the world with smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts.

In Conclusion

I will end this presentation with a quote from the martyred President of Egypt Anwar Sadat (yet another Nobel Peace laureate) expressed at the Knesset during his historic visit to the Holy City of Jerusalem.

… Yet, there remains another wall. This wall continues and constitutes a psychological barrier between us, a barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection, a barrier of fear, of deception, a barrier of hallucination without any action, deeds or decision. A barrier of distorted and eroded interpretation of every event and statement... It is this official statement as constituting 70% of the whole process. Today, through my visit to you, I ask why don’t we stretch out our hands with faith and sincerity so that together we might destroy this barrier?

We, the peoples of living faiths, who have traveled across borders and cultures, can lead the way by stretching our hands with faith and sincerity so that together we may build a new world with no borders and barriers yet preserving our identity as we tell and re-tell our story line with smiles in our faces and joy in our hearts.

A final quote: “The age of nations is past. It remains for us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the ancient prejudice, and build the earth.” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ)


Fr. Eliseo R. Mercado, Jr., OMI, Phd. was President of Notre Dame University in Cotabato City, Philippines and Director for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation for the OMI (Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate) based in Rome. A recognized expert on the role of Islam in Southeast Asia and the Philippines, he was the government’s chief peace negotiator with the Muslim fronts. He is the lead convener of the National Peace Council which works for the resumption of formal peace talks between the Philippine Government and rebel fronts. He lectured at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, at the University of Sans Malaya in Malaysia, and at Georgetown University and the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. He was one of 25 Fulbright Millennium Scholars on Religions and Conflict in 2003.