Feb 05, 2006
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Canadian building bridges between Christians, Muslims
A CANADIAN lawyer and broadcast journalist, he was the last person you would expect to serve as a bridge between Filipino Christians and Muslims. But Robin Pettyfer not only took a two-week break from work to be in Manila, he also tapped cutting-edge technology as a tool for linking up culturally diverse youth from distant points of the archipelago. A two-day video conference between students in Metro Manila and Mindanao was held at the De La Salle University (DLSU) late last month. Among its proponents was Pettyfer, a Vancouver-based lawyer and journalist whose earlier stay in the country in the late ’90s has since given him a sense of mission. “We now have the power of technology to make average Joes realize that we’re not really different from each other,” said Pettyfer, 37, who conceptualized “Ugnay Kabataan” along with Benjie Abadiano, a 2004 Magsaysay Awardee for Emergent Leadership and president of the Assisi Development Foundation. The conference, held last Jan. 23 and 24 at the DLSU’s William Shaw Little Theater, was designed to “play down our differences which our leaders and politicians tend to exaggerate,” he told the Inquirer. “What we’re telling here is that these differences are irrelevant and you can stand up to those lies. A Christian can now say that ‘hey, I spoke to Muslims today and they’re just like me. They are not green, they don’t have tails, they have girlfriends and love basketball, too’,” he stressed. Organizers claim that “Ugnayan” was the first time video conferencing—courtesy of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co.—was used for this purpose. Pettyfer, who last year also took part in humanitarian projects in rural Mindanao and in the slums of Baseco, Tondo, said he chose the country to be the pilot area for this mode of peacemaking, which he intends to replicate in other conflict zones around the world like the Middle East. What he called his “strong emotional attachment to Filipinos” can be traced to his late grandfather Gerald Hugh Wilkinson, a British colonel posted in the country during World War II, who went on to befriend Filipino families like the Zobels and Sorianos, as well as the late President Ramon Magsaysay. Pettyfer lived in Manila from 1997 to 1999 as a corporate lawyer for foreign investors and multinationals. For the past few years, however, he has been working as a TV and radio reporter for the Canadian Broadcast Corp. “This is my home away from home,” he smiled. “Filipinos are a very creative, generous, sociable, and positive people. But they have been given a bad deal by invading cultures that have exploited their good nature.” At an estimated cost of P200,000, the video linkup was established between the DSLU theater in Manila and the St. Joseph Retreat House in Cotabato City. “Ugnay” gathered some 300 high school students representing 19 schools in Metro Manila, and 22 students and youth leaders representing Muslims and lumad tribes from around Mindanao. The students enjoyed up to four hours of real-time video chat, with adult panelists guiding the discussion on topics ranging from the day’s hottest political issues, to religious tolerance, and the armed conflict in Mindanao. The sharing took poignant turns especially when Mindanao students spoke of racial discrimination and mass evacuations spurred by military operations in their villages, and of Muslims being tagged as “terrorists.” Also among the organizers was another Canadian, Tim Boulton, a teacher from the International School in Manila. “I’m a strong believer in bringing people together through technology, which is cheaper than sending them on trips to meet,” added Pettyfer, who personally wrote PLDT chair Manny Pangilinan last July to ask his firm to sponsor the video hook-up. His proposal was endorsed by Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. and the RM Foundation.