Conflict-Sensitive Expressions of Faith in Mindanao: A Case Study
This case study explores a promising, though imperfect, new way of equipping religious actors to improve their own socio-political impact in societies vulnerable to destructive conflict. The focus is not on religious actors who engage directly in matters of peace and conflict, but rather on religious actors who influence conflict as an unconscious side-effect, or an externality,  produced during other forms of service. Such unintentional impact is not always positive. As observed by Rev. Mandell Creighton: “No people do so much harm as those who go about doing good.”  These concerns are relevant worldwide, but particularly salient in Southeast Asia, where multiple faiths play a vibrant role in public life. Ethno-political conflict is widespread and, where there are strong demographic correlations between ethnic identity and religious affiliation,  religion is often drawn into the fray.  As a result, everyday religious activities can inflame inter-group tensions. With this challenge in mind, we report on the field-testing of an approach called “conflict sensitivity” among churches, mosques and religious service agencies in Mindanao, the southernmost region of the Philippines.
About Conflict Sensitivity
Conflict sensitivity is an organizational planning approach originally developed to help humanitarian and development assistance practitioners understand the complex interaction between aid and conflict. Conflict sensitivity proposes that regardless of the nature of an organization’s mandate, much of its impact is determined by how its interventions interact with the surrounding context. If the context is affected by socio-political conflict, then aid activities can impact in positive ways that promote peace, negative ways that exacerbate conflict, or a complex combination of the two. The goal is to minimize unintended, negative impacts on the conflict, while maximizing positive impacts.  This approach is practiced in settings of both “manifest” and “latent” conflict.  Having gained prominence in the aid community, conflict sensitivity is also being considered in the transnational business sector as a form of corporate social responsibility.  Conflict sensitivity is an umbrella term  encompassing a cluster of related analytical frameworks and tools.
The particular tool selected for testing among religious actors is called “Do No Harm” (DNH; alternatively “Local Capacities for Peace” or LCP).  The DNH process begins with a social context analysis that identifies the dividing and connecting factors in intergroup relationships across prominent social cleavages. Next, an impact analysis considers how a particular organizational intervention affects those intergroup relationships through the twin impact mechanisms of “resource transfers” (referring to the provision of goods and services) and “implicit ethical messages” (referring to the ethos communicated by the implementers). If the intervention strengthens Dividers or weakens Connectors, it is considered a negative impact to be avoided through careful redesign. If the intervention strengthens Connectors or weakens Dividers, it is considered a positive impact to be encouraged. DNH is best known for its minimalist applications,  meaning its utility is in helping agencies to simply avoid making conflict worse, but it can also lay a foundation for more ambitious peacebuilding efforts.  DNH is one of the most influential conflict sensitivity tools in the aid sector,  and it is adaptable to a wide range of organizational settings, including uptake by grassroots actors. 
Grassroots applications have figured prominently in the operational learning of aid agency World Vision International, which uses DNH as a cornerstone of its worldwide conflict sensitivity efforts. As a Christian agency that works in many multi-religious contexts to serve people of all faiths and backgrounds, World Vision has found that DNH can contribute to significant changes in the values and behaviors of staff and local partners. DNH has also helped position the organization for increased collaboration with other faith groups in shared community development efforts.  These emergent outcomes led former staffer Michelle Garred to form an action research partnership with the Davao Ministerial Interfaith (DMI) of Mindanao to explore more rigorously the potential applicability of DNH within the religious sector.  DMI is comprised of approximately fifty religious leaders from the Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim communities who work together in voluntary community-based social action in Davao, the largest city in the Mindanao region. Founded in 2002 to integrate a values formation component into a community development program funded by World Vision Development Foundation of the Philippines, DMI has since established its own organizational identity, expanded its Davao-based partnerships, and begun to mentor five sister interfaith networks around Mindanao.
DMI was introduced to DNH by World Vision staff in 2003, and quickly became a quiet pioneer of DNH uptake in the religious sector. Between October 2007 and April 2009, the action research project evaluated DMI’s collective experience of DNH uptake, equipped twelve DMI members as new DNH trainers, and then tracked the opinions and experiences of 143 individual Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim leaders who had participated in DNH workshops. The resulting body of data included fifty-four short- and fifty-eight long-form surveys, thirty-one semi-structured interviews of individuals and (focus) groups, and fifty-nine samples of the participants’ own context analyses generated during participatory DNH workshops. Many participants contributed more than once, so the multiplicity of data sources aided in triangulating diverse aspects of their self-reported experiences across settings and over time. The participating religious leaders represented DMI itself, plus four of DMI’s regional sister groups  and six Davao City partner agencies including mosques and churches. The participant group was 53 percent Protestant, 34 percent Roman Catholic, and 10 percent Muslim, with 3percent representing other groups.
DMI’s demographic significance becomes apparent when juxtaposed with the broader context of Mindanao, where religion is closely entwined with colonial history and ethno-religious conflict. Islam was introduced to Mindanao in the fourteenth century, largely peacefully, by Arab traders and Sufi preachers. The groups that converted to Islam eventually became known collectively as the Bangsamoro,  while those who retained indigenous ways are called Lumads.  Four subsequent centuries of Spanish colonialism left the Philippines predominantly Roman Catholic (currently over 80 percent).  The more recent growth of Evangelical Protestantism, which accelerated following a brief twentieth-century era of American rule, has contributed to serious Catholic-Protestant tensions. The country’s Muslim minority remains concentrated in Mindanao, a region whose inclusion in the Philippines polity has long been contested. Twentieth-century resettlement policies moved predominantly Christian migrants into Mindanao, making them demographically, politically, and economically dominant over the local Bangsamoro and Lumads. As a result, separatist armed conflict emerged in the 1960s. Currently, a 1996 autonomy agreement between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front is faltering in its implementation, and negotiations are ongoing with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Ethno-religious polarization frames civilian life, as reflected in an early 2000s participatory conflict assessment that identified “negative perceptions and attitudes expressed and demonstrated by conservative religious groups” as a primary source of conflict and potential violence in Davao City. 
Against this backdrop, it is noteworthy that the action research participants hold religious beliefs best described as orthodox and traditional. Interfaith collaboration represents a new and intensely challenging aspect of their work. The Muslim research participants are primarily a'immah and ustadz, and the Protestant participants are largely pastors (both male and female), but the Catholics are represented by nuns and lay leaders with a notable absence of priests. Most serve at the grassroots level, but some also exercise city-wide leadership within their own faiths, or have growing network connections to Mindanao-wide interfaith bodies such as the Bishops-Ulama Forum. Eleven of the participants consider themselves ethnically Lumads, but only one remains a practitioner of indigenous beliefs, reflecting the cultural and geographic isolation of many Lumad communities. Nearly all of the Protestant participants describe themselves as Evangelicals,  representing denominations including Baptist, Assemblies of God, and Christian and Missionary Alliance. The 53 percent representation of Evangelical Protestants among the research participants is disproportionate to the local population, but it provides a valuable window into how conflict sensitivity interacts with the sensitive issue of proselytism, which influences conflict dynamics in Southeast Asia  and beyond. 
Importantly, most of the participating religious leaders were cautious if not opposed to interfaith engagement prior to encountering DMI. They attribute their changing stance in large part to the DNH training provided by World Vision, as described in the sections that follow. DNH has resonated deeply with their own faith, largely because it draws upon faith-friendly values such as peace, caring for others and personal ethical responsibility. Conflict sensitivity highlights the risk of doing damage while trying to do good, bringing its users face-to-face with what Appleby calls the “ambivalence of the sacred,”  in reference to the potential of religious experience to engender both peace and violence.  The awareness of potential harm often comes with a cognitive and emotional jolt, and it taps into a deep well of religious ethics around one’s responsibility towards the wellbeing of others. Thus DNH, originally a secular tool, is now considered by DMI’s members to be compatible with their own faith traditions, and an important part of their own “spiritual transformation.” 
The DNH social impact patterns common in aid work are understandably distinct from those found in the religious sector, because the actors undertake different activities and interventions. The tangible dynamics of resource transfers, which usually dominate the discussion among aid workers, receive decidedly less emphasis in the religious sector. More prominent among religious actors are the DNH tool’s “implicit ethical messages,” referring to the value-laden ethos communicated through the words and actions of service implementers. Such intangibles naturally correspond to one’s religiously-influenced beliefs, not only those that are implicitly held and conveyed, but also those that are explicitly taught. Religious sector impact patterns identified through action research are summarized below. 
Patterns in Viewing and Relating to “the Other”
In Mindanao’s religiously-charged environment, analysis of DNH impact patterns points consistently to the question of whether a religious organization excludes people from relationship, membership, or services on the basis of ethno-religious identity. The prevailing culture leans toward separation, such that “different religious groups are divided automatically.”  A pattern of “disrespect, mistrust and competition”  is driven by the widespread assumption that “it’s hard for groups with different beliefs to work together.”  Participants articulate fears borne of historical perceptions: Muslims anticipate exploitation from Christians, and Christians expect violence from Muslims. Muslims simultaneously anticipate that Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, will seek to convert them to Christianity. Between Catholics and Protestants, there are strong mutual feelings of superiority based on religious beliefs and practices, while Catholics anticipate a Protestant pressure to convert. Among Protestants there is competition between denominations and churches, undergirded by differences of belief and practice, and the drive to increase membership.
The best example of change in this culture of religious exclusivism lies in the story of DMI and its members. Eighty-one percent of action research participants surveyed  indicate that they have “observed significant changes” since they began using DNH. They describe changes of a personal nature, primarily in themselves, and sometimes among other interfaith participants. Participants often articulate shifts in mindset, such as “LCP transformed my mind … and changed my perspective.”  Specifically, DNH training prompts religious actors to recognize systemic ethno-religious discrimination as central to the protracted conflict in Mindanao, and to consider how their own attitudes and behavior perpetuate such discrimination. Participants then begin to adjust their own stance; for example, one said, “I [now] respect them who they are, that every human being has dignity and honor.”  Further, participants begin to question the implicitly-held principle that one should not mix with people who hold beliefs that are different, and therefore probably inferior. The emergence of a more inclusive mindset contributes to changes in behavior, such as taking the initiative to seek relationship with people of other ethno-religious groups, even when such actions may entail personal risk.
These changed relationships profoundly influenced DMI’s founding vision. “Though we began with a majority Evangelical membership, LCP analysis of our multifaith context continually challenges us to seek out more Catholic and Muslim members.”  This change was strongly encouraged by DMI’s World Vision mentors, and it parallels a similar shift in the aid agency’s own interagency positioning in Mindanao. DMI now requires that all new members undergo training in DNH, and in a Mindanao-specific companion module called the “Culture of Peace,”  to “prepare their minds and hearts for interfaith fellowship.”  The DNH concept of inter-group Connectors  helps to “build relationships upon the things that connect us, such as our faith in Almighty God/Allah,  service for the common good of all people, desire for justice and peace, and the joy of sharing meals together.”  The DNH concept of Dividers  aids in identifying and neutralizing potentially divisive factors, such as ensuring that event venues, music choices and non-pork menus are acceptable to all. Perhaps most importantly, sensitive differences in belief and practice are addressed as follows: “We respect each other’s doctrine, so we do not debate about doctrinal issues in order to avoid divisive perceptions of proselytism and exclusivity.”  In practical terms, this makes the DMI approach acceptable to holders of orthodox beliefs, because there is no attempt to homogenize differing doctrines or theological systems.
Patterns in Serving the Community
Religious institutions in Mindanao are active in practical community service, yet the culture of ethno-religious exclusion is not easily overcome. DNH highlights the conflict-escalating potential of inequitable “distribution effects,”  which helped action research participants to recognize the local patterns through which religious agencies tend to “give the benefits to people that we perceive are similar to ourselves.”  Religious actors who become conscious of this pattern may choose to challenge it. A Muslim jail chaplain recently used DNH when organizing medical clinic services inside the local jail. Recognizing the initiative of the Muslim chaplain, the jail authorities offered to give Muslim detainees priority access to the clinic’s services. The chaplain declined, knowing that preferential treatment towards Muslims would exacerbate the existing tensions between Muslim, Catholic and Protestant detainees. Instead, he located the temporary clinic inside the Catholic chapel, and staffed it with Christian doctors, to make it clear that detainees of all faith backgrounds were welcome.
Sensitive issues of proselytism often come to the forefront during the implementation of faith-based community services. The reasons are deeply rooted in Mindanowan history in which successive waves of conversion were often accomplished by means of force, coercion or material incentive by one ethnic or national group towards another. The public often assumes that religious agencies will use social services as a means toward conversion. Therefore even if an agency practices inclusion by serving all ethno-religious groups, people may wonder about its underlying motivation for doing so. The perceived or actual existence of a conversion motive, particularly if not disclosed, tends to exacerbate intergroup tensions. In terms of DNH impact patterns, DMI refers to this phenomenon as “using aid for purposes of persuasion.”
Addressing the proselytism issue is a complex task, because many religious actors, particularly among Evangelical Protestants, are committed to public proclamation as a core expression of their faith. Rather than counseling that evangelism be curtailed, DMI encourages religious leaders to reflectively clarify their own motivations for service, and then to ensure that these motives are communicated transparently to the community. Given the raw sensitivities of the local context, “it is sometimes better to separate the material gift from the spiritual message, so that recipients do not feel pressured.”  DMI helps religious leaders identify practical ways of demonstrating this distinction, such as conducting service outreach in public community halls instead of church buildings. Again, such changes are strongly encouraged by DMI’s World Vision mentors in keeping with that agency’s firm global stance against any usage of “influence or aid to entice people to convert.”  Finally, DMI increasingly encourages forms of spiritual formation that focus more on how a person relates to Almighty God/Allah, and less on the categorization of his or her religious affiliation. 
Patterns in Understanding and Managing One’s Own Role
DNH training contributes to a greatly increased awareness of the intergroup tensions found in one’s own context, and the potentially divisive impact of one’s own actions. “You should know the impact/effect of your religious activities to your constituents, group, members.”  Most religious leaders are trained to focus on the will of Almighty God/Allah, and the requirements of their faith, not on the unique dynamics of the surrounding community. DNH changes this outlook: “Previously, the social context was not our priority. LCP showed us that we need to be aware of our social context.” 
This expanded contextual awareness has also been observed among aid workers trained in conflict sensitivity,  but it takes on additional meaning in the religious sector. As DNH practice deepens, religious leaders become increasingly sensitive to the ways in which their spiritual activities, such as teaching and prayer, can influence individuals in their relational positioning vis-à-vis other social groups. This leads to an emphasis on values formation, both explicit and implicit, drawing on biblical and qur’anic scriptures to explore the concept that the quality of one’s relationship to God is directly linked to the quality of one’s relationships with other human beings. Further, religion holds a great deal of influence in mainstream Mindanowan culture, and there is a widespread (though not necessarily universal) respect for the office of the religious leader. Followers tend to assume that the leader holds significant divine authority, “like a representative of God.”  Thus when a religious leader reveals his or her own stance towards “the other,” whether exclusive or welcoming, the social impact of that stance is magnified due to the prominence of his or her role.
Even among religious actors who have been introduced to the notion of doing unintentional harm, certain implicit beliefs may prevent them from applying the concept to their own work. There is sometimes a tendency to “believe that our relationship to Almighty God/Allah, or our role as religious leaders, prevents us from making serious mistakes.”  Further, when mistakes are made, many believe that divine providence will blunt the impacts: “When your intentions are good, isn’t it always a good impact? I believed that the Lord would straighten any crooked lines I made. I will do my best, but God will take care of the rest.”  DMI refers to this pattern as “washing the hands of social impact,” meaning to decline responsibility for the effects of one’s actions. DMI, while affirming that God Almighty/Allah can indeed be gracious towards human mistakes, also urges religious leaders to practice socially responsible planning.
Difficulties, Adjustments and Next Steps
DNH has made a remarkable contribution towards the development of inclusive mindsets in Mindanao, and these findings are supported by smaller-scale experiments in Singapore and Indonesia.  Social impact dilemmas and practitioner solutions will vary greatly according to context, but the applicability of DNH in the religious sector is anticipated to be broad. Nonetheless, some caveats are necessary. The analysis of inter-group relations can at times be shallow, failing to uncover deeper issues of systemic injustice. This is most common among new DNH users whose own identity group is implicated in the conflict being analyzed, particularly if their ideas are not triangulated against other sources. DNH critics in the aid sector have pointed out similar problems,  in part because DNH is a localized tool that makes no explicit reference to broader justice issues, although it does provide ample conceptual space for such issues to be drawn out by a skilled facilitator. This shortcoming can be addressed through ongoing DNH mentoring, additional training on the macro-level history of the context in question, and facilitated exposure to the perspective of “the other.” However these solutions require a significant investment in capacity building, so it may also be advisable to add an explicit justice reference directly into the DNH framework, as exemplified in the comparable tools created by Kenneth Bush. 
Another challenge is that a significant proportion of people exposed to DNH do not use the tool in the manner that was originally intended. In both the aid and religious sectors, conflict sensitivity training reliably promotes change among individuals, but application at the organizational level is less consistent.  DNH users often rely mainly on DNH context analysis, omitting the rigorous analysis of the impact of current organizational activities.  Repeated exposure increases the rate of DNH uptake,  and individual change is often a precursor to broader organizational application.  Nonetheless there is also evidence of an important distinction between two cognitive styles,  which can be described as “logical frameworkers” and “complex circlers.”  Frameworkers appreciate analytical thinking on causes and effects, while circlers focus on relationships, processes and opportunities. Both styles can contribute to conflict sensitivity, but current DNH training methodologies cater heavily to frameworkers. Training methods may need to be diversified, in order to enhance DNH application rates among practitioners of all cognitive styles.
Finally, the religious sector differs in important ways from the world of humanitarian aid. The Mindanao findings are indicative of the social impact patterns found in the religious sector, but any generalizable identification of those patterns will require additional research among other socio-cultural contexts and non-monotheistic religious groups. Further, existing DNH training materials tend to emphasize examples of unintended negative impact, which resonate well in the self-critical professional culture of international aid workers. However, religious actors tend to be more oriented towards the positive, requiring a balanced approach that encompasses both positive and negative possibilities. Finally, the presentation of DNH can be infused with religious scriptures, to help religious actors appreciate their own faith’s peace teachings as a rationale for conflict-sensitive practice. In this way, conflict sensitivity contributes to the development of leaders who are equipped to cope with religion’s ambivalent potential.
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- 14. Michelle Garred with Mohammed Abu-Nimer, ed., A Shared Future: Local Capacities for Peace in Community Development (Monrovia, CA: World Vision International, 2006).
- 15. For Michelle Garred this project represented a component of her Ph.D research, while for DMI the project provided a way to share their DNH learnings with other religious leaders in their region. Supporting partners included World Vision Development Foundation and Hugpong sa Kalambuan-Dabaw (Unity for Progress-Davao). Funding was provided by small grants from the International Peace Research Association Foundation, the Religious Research Association, and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.
- 16. Located in Sarangani, South Cotabato, Agusan del Sur, and Zamboanga Provinces.
- 17. The term “Bangsamoro” means “Moro nation.” The Spanish originally applied the word “Moros” in a pejorative sense, but Mindanowan Muslims have adopted this term as neutral or positive in their own usage.
- 18. Some Lumads subsequently converted to Christianity, both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Approximately 7 percent of action research participants were Lumads.
- 19. Kazuya Yamamoto, "Nation-Building and Integration Policy in the Philippines," Journal of Peace Research 44, no. 2 (2007): 204.
- 20. Herminegilda Presbitero-Carrillo, Who Are We Partnering With? Lessons Learned from the Philippines in Partnering with Religious Leaders (Manila: World Vision Development Foundation, 2004). Other primary sources of conflict were identified as summary killings of suspected drug dealers and the role of organized youth gangs.
- 21. In fact, these participants prefer to be called simply “Evangelicals,” without any reference to Protestantism. This case study refers to Evangelical Protestantism for the sake of clarity among international readers.
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- 27. Michelle G. Garred, "Conflict Sensitivity and Religious Associations: An Action Research Journey in Southeast Asia" (PhD dissertation, Lancaster University, 2011).
- 28. Analysis board posting, research team consultation, Davao City, Philippines, 15-16 Oct. 2008.
- 29. This pattern is also found in the original DNH framework.
- 30. Davao Ministerial Interfaith Inc., "Transformed Together: A Journey with Local Capacities for Peace," 36.
- 31. Long-form surveys (58) of religious leaders trained in DNH, Davao City and Isla Parrilla, Sarangani, Philippines, Jan.-Jul. 2008.
- 32. Evangelical Protestant Pastor (male), interview by Michelle G. Garred, Davao City, 20 Apr. 2007. Identities are anonymous in this case study, in order to protect participant security.
- 33. Evangelical Protestant Pastor (male), long-form survey, Davao City, Philippines, Jan. 2008.
- 34. Davao Ministerial Interfaith Inc., "Transformed Together: A Journey with Local Capacities for Peace," 19.
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- 36. Davao Ministerial Interfaith Inc., "Transformed Together: A Journey with Local Capacities for Peace," 20.
- 37. Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace--or War, 23-35.
- 38. DMI uses the name "Almighty God/Allah" because it is broadly acceptable among local Catholics, Protestants and Muslims.
- 39. Davao Ministerial Interfaith Inc., "Transformed Together: A Journey with Local Capacities for Peace," 19.
- 40. Anderson, Do No Harm, 23-35.
- 41. Davao Ministerial Interfaith Inc., "Transformed Together: A Journey with Local Capacities for Peace," 19.
- 42. This pattern is also found in the original DNH framework.
- 43. Davao Ministerial Interfaith Inc., "Transformed Together: A Journey with Local Capacities for Peace," 32.
- 44. Davao Ministerial Interfaith Inc., "Transformed Together: A Journey with Local Capacities for Peace," 43.
- 45. World Vision International, "Ministry Policy on Interfaith Relations," (n.d.).
- 46. The term "conversion" is so multi-faceted and so sensitive in Mindanao that DMI publications avoid using this word. With reference to improving one's relationship to God Almighty/Allah, one may use the term 'spiritual transformation,' which reflects an aspiration that is shared across faith traditions. This differs significantly from the notion of changing one's religious affiliation, which is likely to provoke inter-group tensions.
- 47. Muslim Ustadz (male), long-form survey, Davao City, Philippines, Jan. 2008.
- 48. Evangelical Protestant Pastor (female), quoted in Davao Ministerial Interfaith Inc., "Transformed Together: A Journey with Local Capacities for Peace," 29.
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- 50. Consolidated analysis of action research cycle two, research team consultation, Davao City, Philippines, 6 Dec. 2008.
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- 53. Singapore work was conducted by Michelle G. Garred and the Harmony Centre at An-Nahdhah. Indonesia work was conducted by World Vision Indonesia.
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Michelle G. Garred, PhD, is an independent researcher/consultant based in Seattle, Washington, and a Protestant lay worker. Sister Joan D. Castro is a Roman Catholic Nun with the Pious Union of Little Sisters of the Divine Mercy and the conflict sensitivity Team Leader for the Davao Ministerial Interfaith of Mindanao, Philippines.