Last Monday, May 23, our nation joined our Muslim brothers in the Philippines and around the world in celebrating the Eid al-Fitr, or “Festival of the Breaking the Fast,” which marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Indeed, this year’s observance of the Ramadan is unlike the previous years due to the raging Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide, Muslims and Christians and other religions alike.

The crisis and challenge that the Coronavirus inflict on all of us, however, provide another opportunity for Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and other religions to further promote solidarity and cooperation in advancing common causes and addressing common challenges, like peace and reconciliation, poverty alleviation, environmental degradation, and the fight against terrorism and violent extremism.

As we have repeatedly underscored in this column, the need for solidarity and cooperation—and dialogue—among countries, parliaments, political parties, business, regional organizations and, of course, religions is crucial for the world is in perilous times, aggravated further by the raging global plague, which has no immediate end in sight.

We recall with gratitude the steadfast support the Philippines received from our Muslim brothers when we initiated in the United Nations (U.N.) in November 2004 the concept and practice of Interfaith Dialogue as a way of helping resolve politico-religious conflicts, strengthening the religious moderates, and isolating those who advocate terrorism and violent extremism in the name of religion. The Interfaith Dialogue upholds a global culture of peace and mutual understanding.

A Philippine-led initiative, the Interfaith Dialogue was approved by the U.N. General Assembly during the Christmas holidays in December 2005. It was a major victory for the Philippines in international diplomacy and our country’s enshrined contribution in advancing the cause of global peace. Since then, not only the United Nations and individual governments, but also civil society groupings, have been holding these dialogues at local, national, regional and international level.

To institutionalize the Interfaith Dialogue, we also proposed the creation of an Interfaith Council in the U.N. or at least a “Unit” be established in the U.N. system whose specific responsibility would be to organize, coordinate, and oversee interfaith dialogues systematically, as well as to assess their effectiveness. We partially succeeded as there is now a “focal point” on Interfaith Dialogue in the office of the U.N. Secretary General.

In January 2006, we organized a Global Interfaith Dialogue here in Manila, where leaders of various religions and faith-based organizations from the Asia Pacific region participated. Several incumbent and former heads of government and parliaments from Asia and Europe addressed the conference. Among them are then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, former President Fidel V. Ramos, former President Jose Ma. Aznar of Spain, former Prime Minister Wilfred Martens of Belgium, former Kjell Magne Bondevik of Norway, Italian Parliament President Ferdinando Casini, and Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed of Pakistan.

Earlier, as then Speaker of the House of Representatives, we remember addressing the U.N. Security Council and travelling great distances—meeting with various political, parliamentary and religious leaders and speaking at international conferences—to campaign and galvanize support for an Interfaith Dialogue.

In November 2003, during then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s state visit to Washington, we broached the idea of an Interfaith Dialogue to President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice when President Arroyo and we conferred with them at the Oval Office in the White House.

We also personally secured the support of our old friend Jean Ping, then President of the U.N. General Assembly. Jean Ping served his beloved country Gabon as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chairman of the African Union Commission, and President of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)when Gabon was an OPEC member.

We remember being received by then King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at the Royal Palace in Jeddah. The well-loved Saudi King reigned for ten years, from 2005 until his death in 2015. Saudi Arabia is considered the leader of the Sunni Muslims.

The late King Abdullah realized terrorism’s and violent extremism’s global threat more intensely, since his kingdom lies in the vortex of a so-called “clash of civilizations.” He then initiated a series of “Interfaith Dialogues,” first in 2008, in the holy city of Mecca, between the Sunni and Shiite clerics, then in the key western cities of Madrid, Geneva, and the Vatican, among others. We had the honor to speak in both the Madrid and Geneva dialogues on the invitation of Saudi Arabia’s Rabitah and the Muslim World League.

We also met with religious and political leaders of Iran, which represents the Shia Muslims, to promote inter-religious, inter-cultural and inter-civilizational dialogue. In Tehran, we conferred with Presidents Mohammad Khatami, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Mahmoud Amadinejad, Speakers of Parliament Nategh Nouri, Haddad Adel, Ali Larijani, and Deputy Speaker Aboutorabi Fard, among others. We also wrote Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran was the Philippines’ partner when we initiated the Interfaith Dialogue in the U.N., which was supported by around 50 other countries.

Iran’s fifth President, the respected statesman Mohammad Khatami, was also known for his proposal of “Dialogue Among Civilizations” which was recognizedby the U.N. in 2001.

We also humbly recall that, when Spain’s then Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero and Turkey’s Prime Minister now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were starting to organize international group action against extremism through inter-cultural, inter-religious, and inter-civilizational dialogue, we were among the first to speak on their behalf and to bring these proposals to the halls of the U.N.

Madrid made a historically appropriate site for an “Interfaith Dialogue,” for a conversation between Christendom and Islam.During their first 350 years of co-existence, beginning early in the Eighth Century, Spain had been the region of their greatest contact and interaction.Spanish Islam enriched both the classical Arab civilization and Europe’s emerging Christian culture. Toledo, then the Spanish capital, was the first center for the transmission across civilizations of culture and learning, including the Greek and Roman legacy the Arabs had preserved in translation throughout Europe’s Dark Ages.

In advocating the Interfaith Dialogue, we have always pointed out that understanding among the great religions, cultures and civilizations is the anchor for a just and lasting global peace.

Hon. Former Speaker of the House Jose de Venecia Jr.
Hon. Former Speaker of the House Jose de Venecia Jr.

Hon. Jose de Venecia, Jr. served as Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Philippines from 1992 to 1998 and from 2001 to 2008, and is Founding Chairman, International Conference of Asian Political Parties. During his distinguished career, Hon. De Venecia was instrumental in successfully securing a peace agreement with the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front in southern Philippines and in forging a ceasefire and a peace pact with the rebellious Armed Forces group, RAM-YOU. He also revived the imperiled and long-stalled peace process with the communist National Democratic Front-New People’s Army, and progressed peace talks with the residual fundamentalist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao. Hon. DeVenecia is a member of GPF’s Global Leadership Council.

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