A bishop in the restive southern Philippine province of Sulu has been fighting persecution and violence with interreligious dialogue in his vicariate that is based in a predominantly Muslim area. Bishop Angelito Lampon, a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate congregation, said he accepted the "call to martyrdom" when he was named Bishop of Jolo in 1998. Various armed outfits, including the Abu Sayyaf terror group, operate in Sulu province, which has an estimated population of 1.3 million people, 97 percent of whom are Muslims. Bishop Lampon recalled that during his installation, Pope John Paul II told him to "try to bring peace" to the province where another Oblate bishop was killed a year earlier. Gunmen shot Bishop Benjamin de Jesus dead in front of Jolo Cathedral on the morning of Feb. 4, 1997.
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Bishop Lampon said he could not think of any motive behind the killing of his predecessor. "Bishop Ben was a good man. Everybody loved him, Muslims and Christians alike," said Bishop Lampon. "He served the people of Sulu for 17 years. He built homes for about 3,000 Muslim and Christian families," he added. The death of Bishop De Jesus was not the last attack on church people in Sulu. In 2000, Oblate Father Benjamin Inocencio was shot dead while visiting a market in the town of Jolo. In 2008, another Oblate missionary, Father Reynaldo Roda, was hacked and shot to death inside a chapel in the province of Tawi-Tawi. More killings, attacks, and abductions of priests and church workers followed with the resurgence of terrorist groups in the province in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. The killings moved Bishop Lampon to vigorously fight "violence, discrimination, and persecution" by seeking dialogue with various religious groups, especially Muslims. "There will be no end to violence if we do not become catalysts of change, and if there is no transformation of heart and mind," he told ucanews.com in an interview. Bullet holes are still visible on the wall of the cathedral in Jolo, Sulu. (Photo by Vincent Go) The 'ministry of presence'
The prelate said the death of the missionaries gave him the courage to be more active in promoting inter-religious dialogue. "Dialogue comes in many ways," he explained, adding that, "just being with people will let them understand you as you understand them." He started to learn the local language, the culture, and even the dances of Sulu's Muslim Tausug tribe. He ate their kind of food and traveled to the villages. During the month of Ramadan, the prelate fasts with the Muslims. "Understanding does not take place outside a specific cultural context," said Bishop Lampon. "We always carry with us our values and attitudes from the soil of our cultural perception," he added. He said that to understand a culture one has "to become familiar with a person's perception of his culture." "Education is of paramount importance," he stressed. There were no schools when the Oblate missionaries arrived in Sulu in 1939. Today, there are seven Oblate-run schools in the provinces of Tawi-Tawi and Sulu. In 1954, the missionaries established the Notre Dame of Jolo College to train aspiring teachers. Bishop Lampon said 99 percent of the students in the church-run schools are Muslims. There were school years in the past when there was not even one Christian among the graduates. The prelate said the church built the schools "not to proselytize nor to make money." "We are here to provide quality education to our children so that they will have a brighter future," he said, adding that it is "inter-religious dialogue in action." The church also runs health clinics. The Holy Family Hospital in the town of Bongao in Tawi-Tawi was the only hospital in the area for many years before government hospitals were built. Bishop Angelito Lampon of the Vicariate of Jolo in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao. (Photo by Angie de Silva) 'Bond of friendship and cooperation'
The Vicariate of Jolo also initiated the formation of a council of religious leaders in the province so both Muslims and Christians can speak as one on issues like peace, terrorism, and the environment. Bishop Lampon said inter-religious dialogue has to come with "respect, bond of friendship, and cooperation." Despite all their efforts, the prelate said peace continues to be elusive. "Why is it that for decades now, there is always armed conflict? I ask myself the same question. Sometimes, I even indulge in self-pity," he said. In 2015, some 300 Christians in Sulu province armed themselves out of "frustration and fear" and volunteered to drive out the island terror groups behind a spate of kidnappings and attacks of communities. Bishop Lampon said peace in Mindanao has "still a long way to go," especially because of what he described as a "lack of intelligibility of our faith-language." "Faith-language from one culture is not automatically intelligible to believers from another culture," he said. The prelate said people living in a "monoculture world without meaningful contact with other faith-worlds tend to fall prey to prejudices and stereotypes." Bishop Lampon said both Muslims and Christians should "perceive the other religion from its own point of view." He said ending violence, discrimination, and persecution will only start when people "learn to listen to one another." "We have been hearing other religions but not listening to them."