Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (OEIA)
The Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (OEIA) of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (AFABICS) has in the recent years been focusing attention on the formation of persons for dialogue. Thus, the Formation Institute for Interreligious Affairs (FIRA) series has been its primary activity. In order to appreciate why this is so, it would be necessary to take a brief look at the history of the FABC-OEIA, especially in the context of why previously it was the BIRA and SIRA series which were the primary activities.
To begin, the FABC was instituted in 1972 by the coming together of the various Episcopal Conferences to form a federation in order to better serve the Church in Asia. Shortly after, in view of the realization that interreligious dialogue was of prime importance to the Asian Church, the OEIA came into being. In the beginning, however, it was an office without much of a structure or an office. Later, in 1978, a formal office was created with Fr. Albert Poulet-Mathis, SJ as the first Executive Secretary and Sr. Aloysius Ho as assistant. Among the first activities conducted at this very initial stage was a survey among Asian bishops on how they view interreligius dialogue. The results of the survey revealed that most bishops agreed that interreligious dialogue was important but at the same time acknowledged that there was a lack of interest in it. More importantly, they pointed out that they did not know much about it or how to go about promoting interreligious dialogue in their dioceses. Thus, the consensus that they needed some sort of formation so as to have necessary skills and knowledge to go about implementing the ever important ministry of interreligious dialogue.
Thus began the BIRA series in 1979. The Bishops' Institute for Interreligious Affairs (BIRA) were in the main programs which brought together groups of bishops for the purpose of instructing them on the key issues which interreligious dialogue entails. There were discussions on the Church's documents, input on the theological issues, and study-sessions on how to understand other religions. Each of these BIRA programs focused on one religion as the starting point for reflections. Thus, BIRA I looked at Buddhist-Christian dialogue, while BIRA II looked at Muslim-Christian dialogue and BIRA III at Hindu-Christian dialogue. These sessions were generally delivered by one or two resource persons, most of whom were Catholic bishops or priests who were themselves scholars or theologians in the religions and fields under discussion. They were attended by mostly bishops but some bishops also brought along with them their vicars, secretaries for the dialogue commissions, or some other key-persons from their diocese or national conference. In general, most of the participants of the BIRA series were in leadership, positions in the Church.
Aside from the first three BIRA programs there were also the SIRA (Seminar for Interreligious Affairs) programs. These pastoral programs brought together bishops and priests who were already committed to interreligious dialogue so that they could search together for better ways of enhancing the ministry of dialogue in the Asian Church. Specifically, the participants at the SIRAs were charged with discovering ways in which they could assist the local Churches take up interreligious dialogue as a pastoral priority and to recommend areas where the Churches could work on renewal and reform. Subsequently, a seven-year BIRA IV series was proposed and implemented. These were sessions which focused on the 'Theology of Dialogue'. Specifically, each BIRA IV program focused on a particular theme in the Theology of Dialogue. Themes such as 'The Church at the Service of God's Reign,' 'Discerning the Spirit at Work in and Beyond the Church in Asia,' and 'Living and Working Together with Sisters and Brothers of other Faiths in Asia', were discussed. They were designed to help the bishops appreciate interreligious dialogue in the context of their Christian mission in Asia. Moreover, the BIRA IV series was planned in such a way as to enable every bishop in Asia to attend at least one of the sessions. Thus, the BIRA I-IV series were really programs for the formation and education of bishops and other key church leaders so as to prepare them for the ministry of interreligious dialogue.
A new era began shortly after the 1990 Fifth FABC Plenary Assembly. With the retirement of Fr. Poulet-Mathis, the OEIA moved from Taipei to Bangkok. Thai Bishop John Bosco Manat Chuabsamai was then its Episcopal Chair. Sr. Aloysius Ho took charge of the office for a while and, upon her return to Malaysia, Sr. Myrna Porto, DC, replaced her. In 1994, Fr. Thomas Michel, sj, become Executive Secretary, with Sr. Myrna assisting. By way of program, there was also a shift in its form and nature. If the previous one dozen years the emphasis was on the formation of bishops for dialogue, by early 1990s the bishops felt that the time was ripe for them to be in actual dialogue with persons of other religions. Thus, the new phase of the BIRA V series evolved and these were programs which brought together groups of bishops with persons of other religions for days of face-to-face interreligious dialogue. The BIRA V series had 'Harmony' as its general theme, whereby each BIRA V program attended to the dialogue between Christianity and another religion. Thus, BIRA V/1 was a Muslim-Christian dialogue, BIRA V/2 was a Buddhist-Christian dialogue, BIRA V/3 was Hindu-Christian dialogue, and BIRA V/4 was a Confucian-Taoist-Christian dialogue. The final session of this series, viz, BIRA V/5, was different in that it was a multilateral dialogue whereby selected participants from each of the BIRA V program took part.
BIRA V/5 was also an evaluation session, aimed at evaluating the entire BIRA V series with a view of recommending future directions for FABC-OEIA to take. In general the participants felt that the BIRA V series was good and could be looked upon as a sign of hope that believers of various religions can live together for a few days and listen and share with one another with respect and appreciation. They, however, felt that by focusing the theme 'Harmony' the BIRA V series avoided the religious elements and societal factors that often bring about disharmony and conflict. They, therefore, suggested that future, programs should pay more attention to these obstacles of dialogue and other sensitive and thorny issues. More importantly, they felt that instead of conferences which are limited to scholars and religious leaders, efforts should be intensified to bring interreligious dialogue down to the grassroots. This is important since it is precisely at these grassroots levels that interreligious conflicts and tensions occur. Thus, the need to organize dialogue programs which serve to reach the grassroots as well as ensure that these programs have a multiplying effect.
However, in order for the grassroots to be engaged in face-to-face interreligious dialogue, they will have to undergo a period of formation first. Thus, the first task was to educate the grassroots on the intricacies of interreligious dialogue. In a way FABC-OEIA's programs have come full circle in that the formation of bishops for dialogue- programs implemented in the beginning years- are now being repeated, but for the grassroots levels. This formation for dialogue of the various levels within the church structures is important since interreligious dialogue is not so much an activity of individuals or religious leaders as that of the religious community as a whole.
Thus, FABC-OEIA entered yet another phase in its development, resulting in the FIRA programs being its primary activities. Moreover, it was around this time, in 1996 that Fr. Thomas Michel was reassigned to Rome and Bro. Edmund Chia, FSC, succeeded him as Executive Secretary. Sr. Myrna also completed her term and Sr. Josefina Elbanbuena, DC, succeeded her as Associate Secretary. At the end of 1999, Bishop Manat completed his term and Bishop Lawrence Thienchai Samanchit succeeded him as Episcopal Chair. Thus, in this new phase of the FABC-OEIA's service to the Church in Asia, formation of persons for grassroots took special importance. This new priority was also ratified at a special consultation with the Episcopal Chair and National Secretaries of dialogue commissions which was held in 1997.
In view of the scarcity of resources and personnel, however, the FIRA series did not really venture into the training of grassroots Catholics, but more the formation of middle-level Church leaders. Specially, the target groups of the formation programs were those in positions of responsibility and influence, such as teachers, pastoral workers, youth leaders, catechists, parish priests, etc. Thus far, we have had four of such formation programs. FIRA I, which was held in 1998, and FIRA II, in 1999, were programs which catered to a variety of persons. There were a few bishops, many priests and Religious as well as many members of the laity, especially those responsible for grassroots' ministries. FIRA III, held in 2000, was a formation program specially for youth and FIRA IV, held in 2001, was one designed specially for the training of new and/or young bishops.
Recent ecumenical developments stemmed from the 1993 agreement signed in Hua Hin, Thailand, by a Joint FABC-CCA Task Force which approved plans for the formation of an Asian Ecumenical Committee (AEC). The committee was to carry out joint programs, foster ecumenical relations at national and local levels, and conscientize Christians of all churches to work for Christian unity. The agreement was approved by FABC in January, 1995 at the Plenary Assembly in Manila and by CCA in June, 1995 at the General Assembly in Colombo.
On 12-15 March 1996, the FABC and the CCA held an ecumenical consultation, AMCU I, in Cheung Chau, Hong Kong. Taking part were 42 participants from 15 Asian countries and delegates from the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The consultation studied the theology of ecumenism, the vision of Christian Unity, and ways to build on what unites Christians and to overcome what divides. The participants looked for practical ways to work for unity in Asia and committed themselves to a wide range of programs aimed at fostering unity. AMCU I called for an early formation of the Asian Ecumenical Committee.
In July, 1996, the membership of the AEC was approved, with seven Roman Catholic members and seven from the churches of the CCA. The first meeting of the AEC took place in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 14-16 January, 1997. Among the joint projects approved were the preparation of a directory for migrant workers and for churches that serve migrants, Catholic participation at the Congress of Asian Theologians and in the Asian Ecumenical Courses, a joint celebration of the Jubilee in the year 2000, a jointly organized Christian-Muslim consultation, and an ecumenical prayer in Hong Kong.
The first Congress of Asian Theologians (CAT I), with over 100 theologians from Asia, was held in Suwon, South Korea on 25-31 May 1997. The FABC was represented officially by five delegates, and other Roman Catholic theologians also took part. Continuation committees were formed in which Catholics were well-represented. CATS II was held in August, 1999 in Bangalore, India. It was a large gathering of Asian theologians about 10% of whom were Catholics. CATS III, held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in August 2001 focused on the Churches in Asia in relation to the followers of other religions. Roman Catholic involvement in the presentations was significant in the latter two Congresses.
The staff of FABC and CCA met at CCA headquarters in Hong Kong on 13-14 June 1997, in an informal meeting at which Dr. Cariño, CCA General Secretary, and Fr. Malone, FABC Assistant General Secretary, took part. They discussed ways of implementing the proposals made at the AEC meeting in Colombo: common intercessory prayers sent to all churches on the occasion of the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, AMCU II which should focus on ecumenical formation and be aimed at church leaders, bishops, and seminary professors, Catholic participation in the Asian Ecumenical Course, Dr. Cariño invited to Pattaya seminar on "The Church in the 21st Century," a jointly-sponsored Christian-Muslim meeting should be organized in Indonesia in 1998, and CCA-FABC cooperation on the question of migrants.
The second meeting of the AEC was held in Tegaljaya, Indonesia on 7-9 January 1998 immediately preceding the AMCU II. The main points decided upon were contact with the Vatican's Office of the Synod to ensure CCA representation at the Asian Synod, Joint celebration of the Year 2000, encourage the Episcopal conferences to consider forms of ecumenical association with other churches at the national and regional levels, and Catholic participation in the Asian Ecumenical Course (Chiang Mai, October, 1998) AMCU II was held in Tegaljaya, Bali, Indonesia between 10-13 January 1998 with 48 participants from 15 Asian countries. The main focus of AMCU II was the preparation of ecumenical teams who could give ecumenical formation courses at the local and national levels. As a follow-up to AMCU II, the first Joint Ecumenical Formation (JEF I) between the CCA and FABC was held in Bangalore, India in 1999. This was followed by JEF II in 2002 in Taipei and Hualien, Taiwan.
The CCA was represented at the Special Assembly for Asia of the Synod of Bishops by Rev. David Gill and Rev. Agustina Lementut, both AEC members. Bishop Kenneth Fernando of Colombo could not attend because of illness. A joint CCA-FABC team visited the churches of Arabia/Persian Gulf in May 1998 to study the situation of migrant workers and to explore forms of cooperation with the MECC Churches to serve the needs of the migrants.
The third seminar of the Asian Movement for Christian Unity (AMCU III) brought some 50 participants - including senior representatives of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity- to Chiangmai, Thailand, 27 January - 1 February 2001. Its theme "Giving Shape to a New Ecumenical Vision in Asia" echoed the encouragement given by the CCA (at its two most recent assemblies) and by Pope John Paul II (in his 1999 Apostolic Exhortation "Ecclesia in Asia" no. 30), that our churches should enter into a process of prayer and discussion to explore the possibilities of new ecumenical structures and associations for promoting Christian unity.