Noridjah and Eleanor holding hands
VSO/Lisa Marie David

Friends forever: crossing the religious divide in the Philippines

Two women in the Philippines have forged an unlikely friendship, despite their religious differences, fostering unity in a once-divided community.

Suspicion and mistrust

Eleanor is a Christian. Noridjah is a devout Muslim and VSO community volunteer who has lived in her town in Mindano, the country’s southernmost island, for 50 years.

Historically, there has been tension between the two religious groups with communities in Mindanao, embroiled in six decades of conflict. During this time, there were numerous land grabbing activities, bloodshed and the slaughter of women and children by different ethnic groups.

Noridjah
VSO/Lisa Marie David
Noridjah, a devout Muslim, met Eleanor when they both participated in a peacebuilding workshop.

“Previously, Christians and Muslims weren’t friends,” says Noridjah.

“We didn’t really interact with each other or work together. If there was a problem, we would blame each other.” 

This was particularly heightened during the 1980s when differences in beliefs and fear of each other resulted in suspicion and mistrust.

Eleanor says she was once afraid of Muslims.

“One time, my brother had the motor from his boat stolen. We thought that because the sea pirates were Muslim, that meant all Muslims were sea pirates. We would avoid them in the street and mistrust them. We didn’t want to approach them.”

Eleanor
VSO/Lisa Marie David
Eleanor is a Christian and is best friends with Noridjah.

These negative attitudes created a fractured community where Christians and Muslims might cross the road if they saw one another walking down the street.  

From strangers to sisters 

Eleanor and Noridjah’s friendship was forged when they participated in peacebuilding workshops developed locally and delivered by VSO, enabling communities to come together for the greater good.

“The workshops taught us about acknowledging and understanding that, even if you are from a different religion, a Muslim feels the same way that a Christian feels, and those feelings shouldn’t be invalidated.

"We’re all people and have the same feelings, so it’s important that you respect each religion’s feelings. We were also educated on how to be friends with people of other faiths and how to work together. This enabled us to have an open mind,” says Noridjah. 

Noridjah and Eleanor smiling
VSO/Lisa Marie David
Eleanor and Noridjah have become firm friends thanks to VSO workshops and initiatives.

Eleanor agrees: “These opportunities for Christians and Muslims to interact gave us a better understanding of each other.” 

The atmosphere in this Mindanao community has since transformed from one of hostility, to one of camaraderie and respect. 

“During Ramadan, we show respect to the Muslims in the community,” says Eleanor. “When we see our brothers and sisters are fasting, we don’t eat in front of them, so that they won’t get tempted.  

“Our Muslim neighbours also share their food with us, especially during difficult times when we have nothing to eat.” 

Noridjah and Eleanor first became firm friends through these workshops back in 2003, and, two decades on, their friendship endures. 

I hope that, even if we come from different religions, we always choose peace over conflict.”

Noridjah

“We are friends forever!”

Noridjah and Eleanor laugh over a cup of tea
VSO/Lisa Marie David
Noridjah and Eleanor enjoying a cup of tea at Noridjah’s house.

Now, Eleanor and Noridjah spend time together talking over a pot of tea and sharing food with one another.

Noridjah explains that their friendship has been further cemented by a love of volunteering. This includes working together on a marine-protected sanctuary.

From Dave Tanner, a VSO volunteer, they learnt how to protect fish and conserve marine habitats and species.  They also built floating houses so they could watch over the sanctuary and prevent outsiders from going there to illegally fish.

“It’s a really easy, warm, and genuine friendship,” says Noridjah. “There is nothing that we disagree on!”

“Noridjah is really caring and always checks if I’ve eaten. She treats me like a daughter and I treat her like my mother,” says Eleanor.  

“The friendship that I have with Noridjah is a great example to other community members that Muslims and Christians can be friends and live peacefully together,” says Eleanor. 

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but little by little, communities have become more peaceful and friendships have blossomed.

Eleanor expects her friendship with Noridjah to last a lifetime: “We are all residents here, so we are responsible for the peace of the community. I believe for the rest of our lives, Noridjah and I will be friends.” 

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