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Peace building: don’t call it church


Daniel and Joji Pantoja.

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Dan with military leaders
Daniel Pantoja (right) speaks with military personnel

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September 12, 2008
- Deborah Froese

DAVAO, Philippines — For Daniel and Joji Pantoja, peace theology offers a way of life that extends beyond traditional concepts of church.

As Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers, the Pantojas are developing a Peacebuilders Community in the Mindanao region of the Philippines where longstanding issues of land distribution have resulted in decades of conflict between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and migrants, largely Christian, from the Northern Philippines. While the conflict may appear to be religious in nature, the Pantojas stress that it is primarily related to unrecognized MILF ancestral domain. Poverty and poor governance also play a role.

The Pantojas offer a creation-embracing perspective of transformation through the development of Salam (Shalom) communities where change occurs on several interconnected levels: spiritual, psycho-social, social-political and economic-ecological. “This is the whole gospel of Jesus Christ,” Daniel Pantoja says. “This is our vision. This is our message and we don’t apologize for it.”

An all-out war recently erupted when strides toward economic-ecological transformation were thwarted. In early August 2008, the Philippines’ Supreme Court suspended the official signing of a territorial agreement between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the MILF. This agreement, which would have increased an existing Muslim autonomous zone and enhanced peace talk efforts, was stalled following complaints from lawmakers in the region who said they had not been adequately consulted.

The war has redoubled the Pantojas effort to use their theology to bring people together from all sides.

“Don’t call it church-planting,” Pantoja cautions. In Mindanao, the Pantojas connect with Muslim communities by respecting Muslim traditions and culture and they allow that culture to inform their dialogue. “We pray that Salam [holistic peace] communities of Isa Al Masi [Jesus Christ] will be formed, but don’t ask us what they will look like. We don’t know,” Daniel Pantoja says.

Pantoja maintains that imposing Western church traditions on people with different worldviews can be counterproductive. For example, he refers to Omar Jihoura, a Muslim who has dedicated his life to Isa Al Masi. Jihoura does not want to be called a Christian because from a Muslim’s historical perspective, that terminology has negative implications linked to colonial oppression. Instead, he calls himself a true Muslim – someone who has submitted himself to Allah through Isa Al Masi.

Fully committed to these beliefs, Jihoura is now teaching American Christian mission workers how to make peace with Muslims.

“I wish I could say I planned this all, but no, things are happening beyond our hands,” Pantoja admits. The Pantojas began their work with Peacebuilders Community about two years ago and they are headquartered in the Peace and Reconciliation Centre in Davao City. With space for training large groups and resources such as a Peace Research Centre and Library and the Coffee for Peace Cafe, the facility welcomes and trains a cross-cultural blend of peace advocates, from Muslims to militia to Evangelical Christians.

“We teach them peace-building and Anabaptist theology,” Pantoja says, pure delight evident in his voice. “We just call it ‘peace’ theology and they come!”

Haron Avrasheed Gabir, a Muslim rebel from the Bangsamoro people, and Elwyn Neri, a Christian with an evangelical background, attended the Peacebuilding Institute and stepped beyond barriers of mistrust. They are now good friends working together as peace advocates.

The Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) created a peace-building ministry within their own structure – the PCEC Commission on Peace and Reconciliation. The Bishop of PCEC often invites the Pantojas to draft official statements regarding the conflict in Mindanao.

Because Peacebuilders Community is operating in a militarized zone, peace training goes beyond theoretical study. Pantoja, who belonged to a Maoist revolutionary guerilla group as a youth, before he became an Anabaptist, now gives participants combat reaction training. “Practical stuff,” he says. “How to crawl on their bellies if they’re caught in crossfire. How to get out of crossfire in a military formation, but without guns. How to communicate.” With these skills, mission workers and other trainees are able to cope with the fear of entering a combat zone.

“When we share our vision, we don’t share it the way we articulate it [in Canada].” Pantoja illustrates the more practical approach required in Mindanao through an example: “We stopped shooting for a day last week. Let’s try two days this week.”

Pantoja maintains that his experience as a peace builder in the Philippines has strengthened his love for God. “When you see a 32-year-old Muslim chieftain give up his M16 to try the peace of God, you say, ‘Thank God! I love you more, God!’”

He is quick to deflect any praise for the work he and his wife do, pointing to the workers whom they have trained in Anabaptist peace theology. “We appreciate it when you refer to us not as Dann and Joji Pantoja, but as the Peacebuilders Community.”

“It’s fun to be faithful with our theology,” he smiles.