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Stronger Peace Efforts Seen Under New Archbishop


January 19 2007

Missioners in a southern Philippine archdiocese see the installation of an archbishop known for peace building as an opportunity to promote increased interreligious dialogue among Christians and Muslims.

Archbishop Romulo Valles was installed as head of Zamboanga archdiocese by Archbishop Fernando Filoni, apostolic nuncio to the Philippines, on Jan. 9 at Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Zamboanga City, 850 kilometers southeast of Manila.

The rite was attended by 27 bishops, 200 priests, and 2,000 Religious and lay guests. Among Muslim leaders who attended were Jaafar Kimpa, Muslim convener of Zamboanga City´s Inter-Religious Solidarity Movement for Peace (IRMSP), and Saad T´laa, a prominent local businessman and IRMSP member.

In an interview aired nationwide several days after his installation, Archbishop Valles said he would support ongoing peace and interreligious dialogues in Zamboanga. He cited efforts of Silsilah Dialogue Movement, Peace Advocates Zamboanga (PAZ) and Emmaus Dialogue Center.

Because peace is a priority for Archbishop Valles, Claretian Father Angel Calvo described Pope Benedict´s appointment of the former bishop of Kidapawan as "very timely and appropriate." The Spanish missioner, who convened PAZ in 1994, is now its president. He told UCA News on Jan. 16 that he anticipates the archbishop leading the archdiocese "to strengthen dialogue with Muslims."

Silsilah founder Father Sebastiano D´Ambra added that nurturing hope among "a great number" of "discouraged Christians" is crucial especially at this time of delayed negotiations between the government and Muslim rebels. "The role of the Church is to work for peace by giving that sense of hope," the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions priest told UCA News.

The new archbishop admitted during his installation speech that he has much to learn from the people of his new archdiocese, who have assimilated the rich cultures of Spain, Islam and others.

Archbishop Valles, 55, was ordained a priest in 1976 for Tagum diocese, east across Mindanao Island from Zamboanga. After nine years of pastoral work he studied sacred liturgy in Rome. In 1990, he was appointed formation director of St. Francis Xavier Regional Major Seminary in Davao City, where he served as the first diocesan priest rector.

From 1997 he served as bishop of Kidapawan in northern Cotabato province, between Tagum and Zamboanga, where poor communities have been caught amid clashes involving Muslim rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Communist-led New People´s Army and government forces.

There he led multisectoral and interreligious efforts to aid war refugees, rebuild communities, establish peace zones, construct wells and provide other community services.

In Zamboanga, he succeeds Archbishop Carmelo Morelos, who requested retirement when he turned 75 in 2005. Pope Benedict XVI accepted his request and appointed Archbishop Valles to succeed him on Nov. 13.

The ecclesiastical province of Zamboanga includes the Prelatures of Ipil in Zamboanga Sibugay province and Isabela in Basilan along with the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo, which serves outlying Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces.

In Isabela and Jolo, violence attributed to Islamic extremists includes killings, bombings and kidnappings. The Abu Sayyaf Group and rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front, from whom the MILF split in the late 1970s, before the former group signed a peace agreement with the government in 1995, also have camps in Sulu. The MILF also thrives in remote communities of Ipil, Zamboanga del Sur province, north of Zamboanga City.

The Jan. 9 ceremony had a light moment, when Archbishop Valles said during his installation speech that he worried how the people would look on him since they expected a "young bishop" and he is already bald. He told the congregation that he thought of a hair transplant, but found it too expensive.

There also was a moment of tension, however, when Father Crisanto de la Cruz, former pastor of St. Joseph Parish in downtown Zamboanga entered and jumped in line at the last moment as the new archbishop blessed his priests.

Outgoing Archbishop Morelos recently suspended Father de la Cruz, after he asked Archbishop Morelos, through a formal letter, to suspend him, since he was running for mayor this election year. Other clergy at the Mass felt Father de la Cruz jumped in as a publicity stunt for his election. Archbishop Morelos had suspended the priest, in part, to save his successor from having to deal with the situation.