By Michael Aaron Gomez

The Ateneo de Davao University (AdDU) held a Pakighinabi titled “The Human Person: Subject of Religious Freedom” in the afternoon of 17 September 2018 at the Calungsod-San Vitores Jesuit-Lay Collaboration Center, 11th Floor of the Community Center of the First Companions, Jacinto campus. Sitting as lead discussant was Jesuit professor of Catholic Theology and Islamic Studies Fr. Felix Körner, S.J. In order as well to highlight the willingness of the University to engage in interreligious dialogue and in the spirit of the Pakighinabi, the University also invited representatives from the Buddhist and Sikh communities of Davao City to sit as reactors.

Fr. Körner opened the discussion by describing the primary qualities of both Islam and Christianity, especially their main messages. “Muslims could state that the Qur’an is calling people to responsibility,” he said. “Christians could say that we are to be transformed into a new life.” He went on to narrate the history of religious freedom in the world, starting from the 19th century through to the Protestant Reformations and eventually reaching 1948, when the UN General Assembly issued the General Declaration of Human Rights.

“You cannot force somebody else to believe, that is not the heart’s fire of love,” Fr. Körner said, explaining the required spontaneity of faith and the phenomenon of religious conversion. “You cannot force yourself to love,” he continued, “you cannot force yourself to believe.” Noting the example of St. Paul, he said, “Paul describes it perfectly as being ‘seized.’”

In terms of the intrinsic nature of human dignity, Fr. Körner said, “Dignity is what human beings always have, not because of what they do, but simply because they are human beings.” Fr. Körner also segued onto a discussion of Islam and its openness to religious freedom. He opened the discussion with a description of the historical relationship between Muslims and other religions. “Muslim polities historically were more welcoming to the Jews and Christians compared to Jewish and Christian polities,” Fr. Körner said.

“Can Muslims argue for human rights philosophically?” Fr. Körner asked. “Yes, it is possible.”  Fr. Körner cited one verse of the Qur’an that “speaks of the religious diversity wanted by God,” explaining further that “the Qur’an presents coercions related to faith as contradictory to faith.” Concluding his talk on Islam, and noting the warmth and benevolence of God to all people, Fr. Körner said, “The Qur’an presents God as one who addresses people, invites them to belief,” and he continued, “He does not steer them like puppets; He speaks to them, He advertises, He suggests.”

Near the end of his talk, Fr. Körner wondered about the possible steps to be taken to address the “mentality that does not allow the practice of other religions” under the newly signed Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). He passed the task onto political scientists and theologians. “Political scientists can provide helpful context about how religions can shape the world where the State has a monopoly on the use of force,” Fr. Körner said. “Religion, then, is a soft power.” As for the work of theologians, Fr. Körner said, “Political theologians remind us that religious are not to be the functionaries of the State,” and continued, “religion is the interlocutor of politics, reminding the leaders of the limits of their capacities.”

Reacting to Fr. Körner’s talk is Ustadz Janor Balo, Head of the AdDU Islamic Studies Program. “Islam endorses and proclaims that God created people in the natural state—the state of freedom,” he said, concurring with Fr. Körner. “There shall be no compulsion in religion.”

Mr. Jess Figuracion, Jr., representing the Buddhist community of Davao City and their organization Soka Gakkai International, cited the UN Declaration of Human Rights and called it the UN’s “greatest gift to humanity.” He also described the contemporary period as the “time for soft power, so everyone can have understanding.”

Concluding the line of reactors is the Chair of the Al Qalam Institute Datu Mussolini Lidasan, who addressed the future challenges facing the BOL, if it is implemented. “The BOL recognizes freedom of religion,” he said. “But the challenge here is for the people to follow the spirit of the law. Some quarters, like the LGBT, wonder if their rights will be respected under the BOL. It is a challenge,” he admitted.

Other reactors at the Pakighinabi were the Sikh representatives of the Davao Indian Temple; Fr. Ramon Prudencio Toledo, S.J., Director of the AdDU Information Technology Office (UITO); and Prof. Arnella Clamor of the AdDU Theology Department. Chairperson of the Theology Department Mr. Lunar Tan Fayloga moderated the discussion.

Fr. Felix Körner himself is a Jesuit professor of Catholic Theology and Islamic Studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, an academic institution founded in 1553 by St. Ignatius of Loyola, now famous for its mission to form future leaders of the new universal Church from more than 120 countries. Fr. Körner also holds a doctorate in Islamic Studies and has lived in Syria and Turkey for his research. After receiving a second doctorate in Catholic dogmatics, he was called to the Pontifical Gregorian University to be a lecturer on the Catholic faith, intra-Christian dialogue, and Muslim-Christian relations. He is also a member of the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims, of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

The Pakighinabi is a conversation series initiated by the AdDU Office of the President to provide members of the university community with a platform to discuss multidisciplinary issues and concerns in a more informal and conversational manner. Its goal is to create a structure for conversations in the frame of social justice and the common good in the pursuit of forming AdDU sui generis leaders.

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