A DECLARATION was signed recently between interfaith leaders from Mindanao comprising the Bishops-Ulama Conference (BUC) and key officials and religious leaders of Pakistan in promoting interfaith harmony and peace.

The signing was made during a visit by the BUC leaders last January 13 to 17 to Pakistan.

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The BUC group was then composed of Presidential Council on Values Formation (PCVF) Secretary General Isabel Tobias, and BUC convenors Archbishop Fernando Capalla of the Archdiocese of Davao, Rev. Bishop Hilario Gomez of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and Dr. Hamid Aminnoden Barra of the Ulama League of the Philippines.

"The milestone visit to Pakistan underscored and demonstrated the spirit of deep cultural understanding, religious and ethnic tolerance and solidarity between the two countries," said Capalla.

Gomez said Pakistan has over 150 million inhabitants with only five percent of the population being minorities, including the one percent population of Christians.

"(But) in spite of the fact the (Muslims) are the overwhelming majority, there is room for improvement of mutual interest and harmonious relationships among them," Gomez said.

"For example, there is one minister reserved for the minority, a Catholic, who represent them. Our discussion today (Saturday) centers on harmony understanding and peaceful coexisting and they have it there and I think we could learn more on their experience as well as they from us," he added.

Barra said Pakistan's minorities include Hindus, Shieks, and other religious groups but all of them are given economic opportunities.

"They are given five-percent quota of all opportunities. When you think of job openings they are allotted these opportunities," he said.

"Second thing I observed pertains to the right of minorities to vote. For example in a certain district, where there are non-Muslims, they can vote twice. They can vote for the Muslim representative of that district and vote for their representative in the district and this is not available to Muslims in the Philippines," Barra said.

Tobias, for his part, said both parties recognized two important things: Pakistan reconfirmed the Philippines as an observer in their country, and the Philippines reiterated their support to the Islamic government of Pakistan.

"At the end of the visit, a joint declaration was forged with the Ministry of Minorities which will lay grounds for action and points of collaboration for interfaith cooperation and peace on both countries," Tobias said.

Capalla read the main points agreed:

* To continue to share ideas of harmonizing the society and inculcating the spirit of peaceful co-existence in our countries;

* To share information to cooperate further for inter-religious interfaith harmony;

* To arrange exchange visit of delegations to learn other's experience for creating a tolerant and peaceful society;

* To encourage the study and replication of successful programmes for inter-religious fraternity and harmonizing the society for peace, love, and tolerance that is the essence of all faiths;

* To appreciate the efforts of Government of Islamic Republic of Pakistan and acknowledge the sacrifices of Pakistan in fighting extremism and terrorism and in strengthening the institutions for interfaith harmony.

This was signed through the representation of Tobias and Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister, Ministry of Minorities Affairs, Islamabad, Pakistan.

The visit was a result of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zadari's invitation to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during their bilateral meeting at the sidelines of the United Nations Interfaith Conference on Dialogue of Civilizations in New York November 2008.

The PCVF and Presidential Committee on Interfaith Initiatives (PCII), Office of the Presidential Adviser for Mindanao (Opamin) and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (Opapp), in collaboration with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), organized the delegation.

Eleven other executive members of the BUC tripartite committee and two other representatives from the Philippine government took part in the visit. (JCZ)