Interview with Vandrazel Birowa

Zamboanga-Basilan Integrated Development Alliance Inc, (ZABIDA), Philippines

Vandrazel Birowa has been working with ZABIDA for five years and is extremely passionate about his work. Originally from the province of Sulu, he draws upon his own experiences belonging to a religious minority group and strives to support communities in Zamboanga, Basilan, and throughout Mindanao.

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do as part of ZABIDA?

I have been working for ZABIDA for 5 years. ZABIDA stands for Zamboanga-Basilan Integrated Development Alliance Inc, (ZABIDA).

I mostly engage with the Mindanao Peace Process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) through a partnership project. One of the highlights of my engagement in ZABIDA is engaging with the Interreligious Solidarity Movement for Peace. It is an interreglious avenue where members of the Muslim, Christian, and indigenous religious communitires can sit down, discuss current issues, and promote understanding and tolerance within the region. Since Zamboanga City is a diverse and multicultural city, it is home to lots of different cultures and religious beliefs. The Interreligious Solidarity Movement for Peace provides a great opportunity for understanding and reflection while also focusing on issues related to peace and security.

I am also a peace program coordinator for a project with the Spanish government. We are currently engaging on the village level and promoting interreligious engagement to the community.

Q: How long has ZABIDA been an alliance and how long have you worked with them?

Based in Zamboanga City, ZABIDA is a consortium of four non-governmental organizations in the Philippines: Katilingban sa Kalambuan, Inc. (KKI), Peace Advocates Zamboanga (PAZ), Reach Out to Others Foundation (ROOF) in Zamboanga City, and Nagdilaab Foundation Inc. (NFI) based in Basilan. All four organizations are dedicated to improving the quality of life for disadvantaged communities in Zamboanga City and Basilan. ZABIDA has been around for 12 years.

I have been working with ZABIDA for 5 years and prior to that I worked in the province of Sulu engaging in mitigation and local conflict settlement.

Q: What role do you think religion plays in life in the Philippines specifically?

The Philippines is a Christinan majority country, but if you go to Mindanao, there are a number of provinces where the majority of the population is Muslim.

Religion plays a vital role in society because if you look at the history of the Philippines, prior to the coming of the Spaniards, Islam was very prevalent in the country because of merchants and influence coming from Malaysia and Indonesia. After the Spanish arrived and Christianization occured, the Philippines became divided. In the early 1970s, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was formed to fight against the government for independence in Mindanao. They believed that the region should be under Muslim governance. In 1976, the signing of the MNLF-GRPH Tripoli Agreement took place, but it created a divide within the MNLF. As a result, a rebel group called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), was formed. They fought the government for more than 40 years. Just last year, MILF and the government came to an agreement and the Bangasmoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was formed.

There have also been several terrorist groups who claimed they wanted to achieve independence for this region. For example Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM) and Abu Sayyaf, a Jihadist militant group.

To an outsider, it seems like the conflict in Mindanao is solely conflict between Christians and Muslims, but it’s more about gaining glorious parts of the region and having a booming economy. However, it often seems that religion is at the center of conflict in Mindanao.

Do you see cases of religious intolerance in the Philippines? What form do they take? What impact do they have on society? 

In 2019, the Jolo Cathedral bombings carried out by Abu Sayyaf took place in Sulu. Twenty people were killed and 102 were injured. A few days after, there was a grenade attack on a mosque in Zamboanga City which killed two and injured four. Conflicts like these make it seem like there is a religious war going on, but there is not. That’s why we are strengthening our platform. We want to get rid of the perception that we are in a religious war.

Q: Are there any specific programs/projects conducted by ZABIDA to build religious understanding and encourage people to be more aware of religious differences?

The Interreligious Solidarity Movement for Peace involves representatives from different religious backgrounds. Led by Father Angel Calvo, the group regularly convenes to reflect, analyze, and work together on addressing peace and security issues. By having leaders from different denominations come together and converse, we are promoting a positive narrative of collaboration and countering the violent extremist groups. Here in our region, violent groups promote an exclusive society. For them, Ummah is only for Muslims, but that is not what it should be. According to the common words of all religions, you are supposed to “love your neighbor.” When they say, “love your neighbor” they don’t specify who your neighbors are. Are they Buddhist? Are they Christian? No, it doesn’t specifically say. The ISP uses their platform to counter the narrative of an exclusive society.

One of the major accomplishments of this group is the creation of the Mindanao Week of Peace. It is a one week celebration of the positive gains towards peace in Mindanao. The Bishop-Ulama Conference used to be the main coordinator of the celebration. Whenever there is conflict between Muslims and Christians, the group stands up to express solidarity. The message of tolerance is that it doesn’t matter whether you are Muslim or Christian and what you believe, but the relationships you form that matter.

The observance of the “Week of Peace” was originally initiated by PAZ and the SAALAM Foundation 23 years ago. Since 1997, the Interreligious Solidarity Movement for Peace has played a huge role in further developing the celebration. In 2001, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared that from that moment forward the last Thursday of November up to the first Wednesday of December would be nationally recognized as the Mindanao Week of Peace (Proclamation No. 127, s. 2001). It was the government’s formal recognition of Mindanaoans desire to live in peace, unity, and harmony with each other. The Mindanao Week of Peace is celebrated annually not only in the six regions on the island, but in other areas of the Philippines as well. Various communities do different things, but the week is usually marked by interfaith dialogue, parades, and large and small scale peacebuilding activities.

Q: During the Mindanao Week of Peace, what kind of stuff happens? How do people celebrate the week?

We usually gather people together through parades, peace concerts, forums, solidarity journeys to different communities. In recent years, we have been collecting peace movies that are highlighted during the week.

For the past 20 years, we have selected a common theme for the week. While every province has their own activities, everybody’s activities are usually geared towards that common theme.

This year we are still conceptualizing how to move forward with the peace celebration during the coronavirus pandemic.

Q: How does ZABIDA engage with youth?

Out of the Interreligious Solidarity for Peace Movement, we have a youth arm called Youth Solidarity for Peace, which is composed of students from different schools and villages. Most of them are recipients of the Peace Weaver Award. Every year, Peace Advocates Zamboanga and ZABIDA, search for Young Peace Weaver Award recipients. Those selected are students who have shown excellence in their school and communities in terms of peace engagement. The schools will send us their nominees and we will screen and interview them.

The youth who are awarded the Young Peace Weaver Award become part of the movement. They engage with other platforms that promote peace. For example, last month we had a Youth Virtual Peace Camp. Normally, it is in person and involves students from many different areas. Their days are packed with indoor and outdoor activities aimed at enhancing participants’ perspectives on peace and peacemaking. Overall, the program helps students with the cultivation of inner peace and develops a culture of peace for young people.

Q: What motivates you in your work? 

I come from an area of conflict, Sulu. My personal perspective on how conflict affects individual lives gives me the motivation to do something about it. In one way or another, we are all victims of conflict in this region. It is important for us to address and acknowledge both the negative and positive things going on.

Secondly, for me as a Muslim, I want to promote the correct attitudes of Islam. Our struggle here in this region is that the teachings of Islam have been hijacked by terrorist groups. This motivates us to do something because the exclusivity that they promote does not represent true Islamic values.

Third, we continue to experience the threat of violence as seen by past attacks on churches and mosques. Our current reality really moves us to do something. We want to counter the narratives put out by the lawless groups and strengthen interreligious solidarity.

Next week will be having a mosque and church disinfecting activity. As a result of COVID-19, places of worship are gradually opening. In preparation for the church and mosque goers, we need to disinfect. However, it is not only about cleaning, but about solidarity. The Muslims will help the Christians clean the church and the Christians will help the Muslims clean the mosque. This simple activity sends a message that Muslims and Christians can work together amidst the threat of violence we have in this area.

Q: Beyond countering the false narrative of exclusivity, is there anything else that poses a challenge when trying to build solidarity?

One of the biggest challenges when you’re dealing with interreligious affairs is the problem of intra religious issues. When you talk about Christianity, you have Catholics, Evangelicals, Protestants, etc, who themselves can’t always sit together and talk about their differences. The same goes for the Muslim community. How can we convince members of different religions to come together when they can’t come to a consensus with members of their own religion? Something I realized while doing this work is that it is sometimes easier for us to facilitate interreligious dialogue, than intra religious. This issue has challenged us to come up with creative ways to bring all these groups together.

Q: Do you have any closing statement for our younger audience on how to embrace religious diversity? (1 minute only, short & brief)

I think religious leaders coming from different faiths have always shown that they are vital when it comes to having genuine dialogue. We at ZABIDA hope to see more dialogue between different faith groups so that we can talk, we can work, and we can work together. Religious tolerance and solidarity have a lasting impact and will help us build a stronger society.

In Islam, when we are confronted with making a nation, one of the foundations of teaching, if you believe in the hereafter, is that you should love your neighbor. It doesn’t say your neighbor should be Christian or your neighbor should be Muslim, it just says love your neighbor. It is a generic platform that we should engage to promote religious tolerance and solidarity which will have a lasting impact and help us build a stronger society.