[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo listens to visiting New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark during their one-on-one meeting before attending the opening of the Cebu Dialogue on Regional Interfaith Cooperation for Peace, Development and Human Dignity held at the Shangri-la Hotel on Mactan island yesterday. - Photo By WILLY PEREZ]

CEBU CITY, March 15, 2006 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - President Arroyo and New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark called on world leaders yesterday to reject "terrorists" who maim and murder in the name of religion.

Mrs. Arroyo and her visitor were addressing an international conference here aimed at promoting cooperation between different faiths.

"We must never accept terrorist violence cloaked in religion by anyone at anytime," the President told about 200 delegates from 15 countries from the Asia-Pacific and Oceania regions. "Terrorism is murder, and no religion anywhere can abide by the faith of the faithless who kill and maim in the name of God.

"Neither should we allow an ideology that scoffs (at) religion as the opium of the people to be the reason to overthrow any government," she said, referring to communism.

Mrs. Arroyo only last weekend vowed to crush the Philippines’ 36-year-old communist insurgency. She has accused communist rebels of plotting with the opposition and "adventurist" military officers to bring down her government, and on Feb. 24 imposed a weeklong state of emergency to quash the alleged coup.

Mrs. Arroyo, a devout Roman Catholic, said her faith gave her "strength and wisdom to reach out and find common ground even with those who do not share my beliefs."

"Faith is the great antidote to terrorism. Faith is the great antidote to godless ideologies," she said. "We must turn up the flame of faith and understanding as we help lower the sword of poverty and destruction."

Mrs. Arroyo said that regrettably, the "story of faith has too often been twisted and has become a source of despair, and destruction sometimes, amongst peoples and nations.

"Our challenge in promoting interfaith dialogue is to redeem the true meaning of faith if we are to truly bring peace and prosperity in the world," she said.

The Chief Executive pointed out that interfaith dialogue was a historical truth among the world’s diverse peoples, creeds and beliefs.

"It is the primordial seed of the human condition and offers hope, confidence, courage and commitment to make a better global neighborhood," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo said that while most nations were now focused on building up arms and military forces to thwart terrorism and extremism, the holding of interfaith dialogues and cooperation for peace, development and human dignity were equally important.

"We must follow our faith and have faith in each other if we are to truly lift up the poor, transform war into peace and stamp down intolerance and violence wrought by terrorism based on false reading of the divine message or a misuse of a divine message that those who misuse it do not believe in the first place," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo has been fighting moves to topple her administration and has ordered an all-out war against the coup plotters and destabilizers, particularly communist rebels, to remove these residual threats so the country could finally take off politically and economically.

Aside from communist insurgents, the government is also dealing with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, with which the government is holding peace talks, and the Abu Sayyaf bandit group.

"The Philippines is a nation that faces the test of individual faith and social tolerance everyday... What we are doing here today is every bit as important as building up mighty military forces to fight terrorism, destabilization and injustice here at home or across the globe," the President said.

She added that she reached out to lead an interfaith dialogue here in the Philippines to bring peace and understanding to Mindanao and the rest of the region and the world.

"As a result of the progress we have made in Mindanao, I am confident that peace is within our grasp," Mrs. Arroyo said. "And if peace in Mindanao is attained, it will be in large part due to interfaith dialogue and the intergovernmental cooperation of friends and neighbors like Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and our more distant partners in peace in the Middle East, North America, Europe and Oceania."

Reject extremism, violence

Clark, in the country on a three-day official visit, urged delegates to "affirm our commitment to tolerance and our rejection of extremism and violence."

"So often we see tension and conflict exacerbated in the name of religion even to the extent of acts of terrorism," she said.

"Most adherents of religions whose names are invoked to justify violence of course strongly deplore and condemn such acts. Nonetheless, they can still be subjected to suspicion and backlash which is completely unjustified."

Clark said "long-lasting peace in our nations, our region and our world can be built by growing understanding of the values and beliefs we share in common and by a willingness to accept and respect difference."

She pointed out that the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States "and what has followed around the world demands that we respond not by accentuating and exacerbating tension but by engagement and genuine attempts to bridge divisions which so clearly exist."

Clark was delighted to see New Zealand’s close Pacific neighbor, Fiji, join the regional dialogue for the first time.

"Fiji is made up of diverse ethnic and religious communities and can bring unique perspectives to this dialogue. In turn, I hope the outcome of the dialogue here will support leaders in Fiji to resolve tensions between communities," she said.

Clark also said the media should be engaged in a "public conversation about interfaith dialogues and the issues which are at stake" because of the important role they play in promoting understanding.

She again castigated newspapers that published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad which ignited violent protests by Muslims around the world.

The publication of the cartoons was not an issue of press freedom as some have argued, she said.

"I believe the central issue is one of judgment of whether to publish, knowing that publication would inflame tensions and provoke divisions," she said. "Publications in such circumstances cannot be good judgment, and it deserves to be criticized on that basis."

Clark last month said the decision by some New Zealand publications and television stations to reprint the caricatures "puts our people offshore at risk."

The two newspapers and two television stations that carried the caricatures later apologized for causing offense.

In Panglao island in Bohol, Clark said she expects her country’s trade relations with the Philippines to strengthen as the two nations celebrate their 40 years of diplomatic relations.

Clark and Mrs. Arroyo arrived in Bohol separately for their bilateral talk in the afternoon after leading the opening of the interfaith dialogue.

Clark will visit some New Zealand-assisted projects here as it provides assistance for eco-tourism in the Philippines.

One group to benefit from New Zealand Aid (NZAID) is the Pamilacan community here, where dolphin watching is a major attraction. Improved marketing, safer facilities and a better quality tour package have helped develop a thriving community enterprise for the local people.

Weather permitting, Clark may have breakfast today at the Pamilacan island off Baclayon town. Other projects here include the protection and enhancement of the Rajah Sikatuna Protected Landscape that spans the towns of Loboc, Bilar, Batuan, Carmen, Sierra Bullones and Valencia.

Clark said she had looked forward to her official visit here and assured that her government would like to get involved in more social projects that would help improve the lives of people, particularly improving the educational system.

"I am very pleased to be here for official visit... New Zealand has been a long-term supporter of development in the Philippines," she said.

Clark added the Philippines has been an aggressive trade partner of New Zealand.

The Philippines is New Zealand’s biggest supplier of electronics and television spare parts, while New Zealand is the country’s biggest supplier of dairy products.

The interfaith gathering attended by Mrs. Arroyo and Clark is a follow-up to the "Dialogue of Interfaith Cooperation: Community Building and Harmony" held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in December 2004.

The Indonesia dialogue was held to promote understanding and harmony in the region through interaction, networking and cooperation among leaders of various faiths and civil society groups.

At the end of the Cebu dialogue, delegates will issue the Cebu Declaration on Regional Interfaith Cooperation for Peace, Development and Human Dignity.

Participants in the Cebu dialogue came from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, Malaysia, Fiji islands and the Philippines. — With AFP, AP reports

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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