Young Muslim and Christian residents of Marawi share food during the breaking of the fast in the village of Datu Saber on May 13. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
Catholics in the battle-scarred southern Philippine city of Marawi have joined the predominantly Muslim community in welcoming the start of the Islamic month of Ramadan this week.
A thousand Catholic and Muslim residents participated in the start of the "Duyog Ramadan" celebration spearheaded by the Catholic prelature in the city's Datu Saber district on May 13.
The annual celebration, which started in 1979, aims to encourage Christian families to "accompany" their Muslim neighbors in fasting, prayer and service to the poor.
"Fasting and prayer are major commonalities among Christians and Muslims," said Redemptorist priest Gary Alvarado, head of the group Duyog Marawi.
The priest said it is not a new concept, "but it would strengthen bonds."
Duyog Marawi is a rehabilitation project of Marawi's Catholic prelature and the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer or Redemptorists in the war-torn city.
"After the destruction of the city, Catholics need to show more solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters," Father Alvarado said.
Bishop Edwin dela Pena of Marawi said "Duyog Ramadan" or One with Ramadan, is "an appreciation of the early memories" of Muslim and Christian interaction in the city.
The program encourages Christian families "to sacrifice one meal" in any day of Ramadan and to donate the cost of the meal to the rehabilitation of Marawi communities.
The bishop said the prelature would take advantage of Ramadan to hold peace-building activities especially among young Muslims and Christians in Mindanao.
The five-month conflict last year between terrorist gunmen and government forces resulted in the destruction of the city and the displacement of at least 400,000 Muslim and Christian residents.
Reynaldo Barnido, executive secretary of Duyog Marawi, said the Ramadan activity would not only be a symbolic gesture for Catholics but "a vow to accompany Muslims even in the hardest times."
"This year's Ramadan is a celebration of victory against individuals and groups who intended to destroy the unity we're forging between Christians and Muslims," said Barnido.
Sultan Abdul Hamidullah Atar of Marawi said fasting during Ramadan is not just skipping meals but "the transformation of the inner self of every person."
"Let Ramadan be our guide towards reconciliation and peace," said the Muslim leader.
"The most important lesson amidst fasting and prayer is how we learn to open ourselves to others through works of charity and service to those in need," he added.
Samira Gutoc Tomawis, a civil society leader, said Duyog Ramadan "reaffirms the singleness of two different but not separated beliefs."
She said Ramadan teaches us "to be like children ... free from hatred and biases."
Father Edwin Gariguez, executive secretary of the social action arm of the Catholic bishops' conference, said the Duyog Ramadan program should be adopted across the country.
"We encouraged other dioceses to accompany Muslims during the Holy Month to emphasize oneness and unity," said the priest.
He said the program conveys a message of hope and solidarity in ongoing efforts to rehabilitate Marawi.
To date, some 27,000 families from the most affected areas of the conflict remain in evacuation centers and transition houses around the city.
Caritas Philippines, which allocated about US$92,000 for the rehabilitation of Christian and Muslim communities, appealed to the public to continue sending donations.
"We have a long way ahead of us. We are not just rebuilding damaged structures but the very life of the people who have been paying the cost of war," said Father Gariguez.