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Manila tour promotes closer Muslim-Christian ties

Organizers say 'Muslim town' visits aim to take away wrong perceptions, explore beauty and diversity of Philippine culture.

 
Manila: 

Quiapo district in the Philippine capital Manila has always been a hub of commerce and a center of piety among Filipino Catholics.

It is home to shops that offer low prices and to the centuries-old image of the Black Nazarene, which is housed in a church in the middle of a busy marketplace.

Unbeknown to many, however, it is also a center of interfaith understanding, of living in tolerance of two major faiths in the country.

Early one June morning, a group of 25 Christians gathered at a small eatery that serves halal food.

While eating bread and drinking tea the visitors listened to a Muslim woman talk about culture, bridging religious understanding and cultural exchange among peoples.

Then they went out to explore Quiapo's "Muslim town," a place in Manila that is often perceived as a "dangerous and dark place."

Ann Marie Cunanan, one of the promoters of the tour, admitted that even those living around the area would advise visitors not to enter the Muslim community.

"We want to change that perception," said Cunanan, who is from the southern Philippine city of Davao.

She said she wanted to share the "colorful culture" of Muslim and tribal communities of the south to people in Manila to "help wipe out bias and stereotyping against Muslims."

The tour participants were first brought to a shop where women were taught how to wear the hijab, or veil, so that they could enter the Golden Mosque.

The Masjid Al-Dahab, or Golden Mosque, is thought to be the largest mosque in Manila. It acquired its name from its gold-painted dome.

Muslim women wear a hijab "to maintain modesty and privacy," said Amanah Busran Lao, a Shariah lawyer who also coordinates the tour. She said wearing the hijab for Muslim women is a "positive assertion of identity."

In the Philippines, the hijab has also become a symbol of Muslim women's ethnic identity.

"It makes us proud. It does not separate us from the rest, instead, it allows us to express our faith," Lao told ucanews.com.

The hijab has also become an important part of Islamic fashion. Various kinds of hijab are made for different purposes, such for formal celebrations, for daily use and even for sports events.

Inside the Golden Mosque, the visitors were introduced to artwork from predominantly Muslim regions in the southern Philippines.

Tour guide Nords Maguindanao explained that the mosque is not just a place of worship but also "a place of refuge" for people who pray, meditate or just rest inside.

A group of children in a nearby madrasa greeted the visitors saying "assalamu alaikum," or peace be upon you, in unison. They then performed a song that conveys a message of peace.

Mohammad, 11, showed visitors the proper way to read the Quran and recite an Islamic prayer.

The visitors were grouped into teams and had conversations with the children, mostly from families that migrated to Manila in the 1970s to flee conflict in Mindanao.

Hanifa Bagunti, a coordinator in the madrasa, said they appreciate it when people, especially Christians, show interest in what is happening inside the compound.

"Everybody is welcome to observe and understand our ways. We value people who ask us about our faith and culture, and exert effort to know us more," she said.

The short tour ended with a feast featuring various cuisines from the southern Philippines.

Ina Morales, one of the visitors, said the tour was not enough to learn everything about Filipino Muslims but was "enough to see how beautiful they are."

"To have even a little knowledge about our Muslim brothers and sisters would greatly help us to debunk biases against them," she said.

Morales said the tour also disproved gossip that the Muslim district in Manila is a dangerous place.

Tour organizer Cunanan said the visits aim to take away "wrong perceptions" about Muslims and to start exploring the "beauty and diversity" of culture in the Philippines.

"We don’t have to go too far. There is a piece of Muslim Mindanao in the heart of Manila," she said.

Amirah Lidasan, secretary-general of the Moro-Christian People’s Alliance, said immersion in a community is one of the best ways to appreciate others.

She called on Muslims and Christians to "reach out to each other ... and cherish the things that bind us and focus on our commonalities."

Organizers of the tour admitted that there is a long way to go in ending religious biases and intolerance but believe that "small things can be the start of a big change on how we perceive each other."

Source: UCAN

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