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Philippines

One Ramadan a Filipino Catholic cannot forget

Muslim holy month takes young lecturer back to when gunmen attacked the city of Marawi

Mark Saludes, Manila

Mark Saludes, Manila

Updated: May 15, 2019 04:12 AM GMT
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One Ramadan a Filipino Catholic cannot forget

University lecturer Joseph Ajero stands on a bridge in the war-torn city of Marawi in the southern Philippines. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

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On May 23, 2017, three days before the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Joseph Ajero found himself trying to avoid bullets that were flying in all directions.

The media literacy lecturer at Mindanao State University in the predominantly Muslim southern Philippine city of Marawi at first thought the gunfire he heard came from residents trying to test a new firearm.

"It’s normal in Marawi to hear sporadic gunfire," said the young Catholic. 

The south of the country is a region where terror and rebel groups clash with government forces from time to time.

But the shooting Ajero heard continued, became louder and closer to the school where he had been teaching for the past ten years.

It was only from social media that he learned that the city was under attack from terrorist gunmen.

On the third day of the siege, the start of Ramadan, Ajero decided to leave the city and head to a safer area with some of his colleagues. 

"It took us four hours to reach [the nearest city]," he recalled. "All I wanted was to get to safety," he said.

It was only later that Ajero realized the extent of what was going on when he saw the overcrowded refugee camps.

The fighting displaced at least 500,000 people, most of them Muslims.

"The scene was depressing. It was Ramadan but people were displaced, food was scarce, and the situation was uncertain," said Ajero. 

He said people had to say their prayers where they could, while only canned goods and emergency relief food were available during the breaking of the fast.

Then at Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, Ajero had a surprise.

There was enough food for everyone, there was roast beef and fresh fish, and Christians were at the evacuation camp. 

After prayers that officially ended the holy month, a group of young Catholics approached the Muslims and presented them roses. 

The Christians greeted the Muslims with flowers and hugs. There was a lot of crying. 

"I was also in tears," said Ajero. He said no one deserves to suffer. He said, "conflict knows no religion, gender, race or age."

"It creates chaos and hatred, and leads to nothing but death and destruction," said the young teacher.

Since then, Ajero vowed to dedicate his time to promote peace and foster cultural and religious dialogue. 

"The celebration of Ramadan brings me back to the day I realized the need to advocate for peace and peace building and to promote dialogue," he said.

 Catholic volunteers greet Muslim refugees during the breaking of the fast at the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in 2017. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

 

Macrina Morados, dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines, said Ramadan should teach people about "self-sacrifice towards the purification of the soul."

She said the observance should remind Muslims of the poor people and their suffering because Ramadan is about "sincerity to worship the one and only God."

Catholic Church leaders in the Philippines have expressed their "solidarity" with Muslims during the month.

Bishop Virgilio Pablo David of Kalookan called on Catholics "to pray together for an end to acts of violence, conflict and hatred, especially those motivated by religion."

He said Muslims and Christians must bond together to achieve "genuine and lasting peace, and well-being in the world, in our communities, in our families and within ourselves."

Ramadan for Ajero, meanwhile, is a reminder that the world needs people who are willing to fight for peace.

Later in May, the young teacher is to leave the university to become a full-time peace activist in a neighboring Southeast Asian country.

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