Uniharmony Partners Manila (UPM)
2021 World Interfaith Harmony Week Webinar Celebration
by Genevieve Balance Kupang
This year’s celebration of the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW) among Uniharmony Partners Manila (UPM), is exceptional given the context of the pandemic and the wounded world. In the past, an array of programs and activities were done daily from February 1-7 in several venues owned and administered by various faith traditions. Due to lockdowns and general community quarantine, members cannot travel, gather, nor be together. Regardless, we, peace advocates, and religious leaders still enjoyed our version of the global WIHW via a two-day webinar, held last February 4-5. This year also marks the inauguration of the UN International Day of Human Fraternity on February 4, 2021; this historic date is intimately associated with the remarkable document “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” signed in 2019 by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al Tayyeb.
With the presence of two meditation masters Ven. Miao Jing Shih of the Fo Guang Shan Mabuhay Temple, and Vicky Manda of Brahma Kumaris, the group had a session of meditation per day meant to achieve a new perspective on the stressful epidemic situation, calming our minds, bodies, and spirits, while enhancing forbearance and serenity. Elder Wakolo Taniela of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (CJCLDS) spoke of harmony, relating it with the various musical instruments together to produce a touching sound. Here is a snippet of his welcome address:
Harmony is the combined product when individuals join to form a cohesive whole.
Think of an orchestra: the flute player may be playing one note, the violinist plays a different note, and the trombonist plays yet a third note. They are different instruments playing different notes, yet when their individual parts are heard together, harmony is created.
The very title of the event emphasizing harmony and celebration amid a wounded world illustrates the buoyant spirit of the UPM members and networks across the nation. It is good to gather with many faiths and traditions to share experiences, reflect, and learn valuable lessons together.
This interfaith event was themed “Living the Spirit of Harmony and Solidarity Amidst Covid 19 in a Wounded World.” One segment dubbed “Heart-Talk about Covid-19” facilitated by Haidi Fajardo, CJCLDS was a sharing of the personal experiences, struggles and lessons learned from those who suffered and survived the virus. “Breathe of God, breathe in me,” pleaded Fr. Christian Buenafe, O. Carm., Director, Institute of Spirituality in Asia, when he agonized due to the virus. The thoughts of death were real, and one realization is that no matter how advanced science is, it is still limited. He advised not to let our guard down, following strictly the health protocols so that we do not contract the virus.
Vic Lahoz, Focolare Movement and Fr. Carlos Reyes, Minister of Interreligious and Ecumenical Affairs, Archdiocese of Manila also shared the physical and psychological difficulties of being infected. They are grateful to the grace of God as they got healed. They mentioned finding meaning in being isolated, faith in the Lord, the value of spirituality, the incessant prayers and concern of loved ones and friends which are the strengths they have in overcoming this health risk.
Panelists in the segment, “Lightning Talk,” shared their reflections on Faith and Action. Asela and Ted Arago, Focolare Philippines, shared “It is the divine alchemy that changes suffering into love and makes the soul experience the presence of God beyond the suffering. We cannot remain in the suffering and we are convinced that with the Ideal of Unity, we have the grace to live, in our ordinary life, the fullness of joy.” The lovely couple further mentioned that it is very important always to live the present moment. We cannot live in the past because it is already gone; we must cast it into God’s mercy. We cannot live in the future because it has not yet come. The skill of the spiritual life tells us: live now, totally and fully in the here and now.”
Insightful too, is the sharing of Bishop Cesar Punzalan, Office of the Interfaith Relations, World Evangelical Alliance about the “end times.” What is happening now urges believers to surrender, as we are exposed naked in the face of God. The beauty of life is to live every day that we are making the difference but always assured of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit during these uncertain times.
Day 2 Webinar was as meaningful as the day before. We were blessed to learn from the following religious leaders, human rights and peace advocates with a long history in the movement of interreligious dialogue and peace education.
Archbishop Emeritus Most Rev. Antonio Ledesma, DD, Chair of the FABC Office of the Consecrated Life, and the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Mutual Relations, in his keynote address, emphasized the role of religious leaders as “artisans of peace” amid a wounded world in need of healing. The first role is to affirm “the transcendent dignity of the human person”, quoting from Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship. We are all made in the image of God, with intellect, free will and conscience. We are all brothers and sisters, citizens of one world, called to a relationship of love and care for one another that makes possible “a social friendship that excludes no one and a fraternity that is open to all”. The second role is that of advocates for justice and peace, as defenders of human rights (including the rights of minority communities and of nature), as well as mediators, to promote the common good. In a world of conflicting interests, religious leaders can help promote a “culture of encounter” through dialogue. Instead of building walls in the heart, religious leaders can build bridges and work for the promotion of human rights without borders. And the third is to say No! to violence of any kind. Wars and armed conflicts represent the breakdown of dialogue and the shredding of human fraternity.”
Jaymee Albos facilitated the “Heart-Talk about our Wounded World” to learn from the advocacies of Hon. Amina Rasul, Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, and Dr. Loreta Castro, Pax Christi Philippines and Center for Peace, Miriam College. “The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world,” echoed Rasul as she shared her advocacy for the defense of truth and getting rid of lies and fake news, human rights, women, sustainable development, and education through the Magbasa Kita Foundation, among others which she has co-founded. She stressed the need for all including women, youth, children, and minorities to be afforded quality education so they can change themselves within themselves. Castro shared the advocacies of her center– nonviolence, disarmament, and interfaith harmony. They have focused on these because our wounded world is filled with violent conflicts, the proliferation of weapons and discrimination. She also explained that much of her inspiration comes from Jesus’ life and message.
“People must realize that Covid 19 is not the first and it will not be the last epidemic that plague humanity,” voiced Dr. Morteza Sabouri, the cultural counselor of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Manila. Sickness is part of the reality of life. But humanity, sometimes thinks s/he has absolute control of things, but no. Nurturing inner peace, and working for mutual understanding is necessary for harmonious co-existence. It also entails humility and faithfulness to strengthen the connection with the giver of life, Allah. Yogita Sharma, Hindu Community Manila, said “God has created this beautiful creation and He is good to each living being. We must take care of our health, sleep well, eat healthy, like more fruits and vegetables to boost our immune system. The pandemic has taught us to value family life, and friends. We need to spend quality time with them.” Selim Serinoglu, Pacific Foundation Incorporated reminded the partners to be steadfast to the demands to faith like prayer, fasting, almsgiving, submission to the will of Allah, among others.
Equally touching were the wise words Fr. Matteo Rebecci, an Italian Xaverian missionary in the Philippines: “Thank you, Arch. Ledesma, Ms. Amina, and Dr. Loreta, I feel inspired by your commitment in advocacy, promoting peace, building bridges of fraternity, struggling for human development, fighting discrimination, putting at disposal your time, reflection, and creativity. I appreciate your insights on the role of religious leaders (Arch. Ledesma), on the idea of critical thinking defending the truth (Amina), on urging the youth to engage (Loreta), taking advantage of opportunities, to be concrete. I would like to highlight the important role of God in making the world a family, in fostering fraternity. What calls my attention is that you are a religious people, with faith in God. You love Him, you have a particular sensitivity for what is transcendent. Yet, this faith in what is beyond the world is also urging you to love your neighbors. Your commitment to building a better world is clear evidence of this connection between the love of God and of humanity. The more we love God, the more we love humanity.” Dr. Genevieve Balance Kupang, World Council for Curriculum and Instruction expressed gratitude to all for making the celebration an avenue of significant learning.“I feel elated that the vision of the “World Interfaith Harmony Week” as inspired by “A Common Word,” and “Amman Message” is growing among us.”
Fr. Carlos Reyes’ closing remarks urged the UPM for some action points: to conduct a forum on Covid 19, to be discerning of lies and conspiracy theories, to continue to act as a support prayer group during this time of the pandemic and beyond, the courage to defend the truth amid the pervasiveness of lies and fake news, help combat climate change by supporting renewable energy, strengthen alliances for a safer environment and the good of our community-a nuclear-weapon-free-world.
Dr. Lilian Sison, Religions for Peace, urged the interfaith community to weather life’s storms, reframe religion as an opportunity to grow closer to God, and truly turn to the Divine during this hard time.
The UPM partners extend their gratitude to Dr. Pablito Baybado, UPM coordinator, Dr. Lilian Sison, Fr. Carlos Reyes, Haidi Fajardo, and Jaymee Albos for the success of this year’s WIHM celebration.
With hopeful joy, let us not give in to the pandemic and the chaos of the world. Instead, align with the beauty and essence of our respective religions to strengthen dialogue with God, oneself, others, and creation towards a harmonious and peaceful co-existence. As we are all equal in the eyes of God, we continue to live the spirit of the WIHW which is “Love God, and love our neighbor, to love the good, and love our neighbor.”
GENEVIEVE BALANCE KUPANG
Genevieve Balance Kupang (Genie) is an anthropologist, consultant, researcher, and advisor to individuals and organizations engaged in working for good governance, justice, integrity of creation, peace, the indigenous peoples, preservation of cultures, and societal transformation processes. She is a peace educator, author, a practitioner of interreligious dialogue, and resource person with a career in the academe and NGO.