MANILA, Philippines, NOV. 28, 2003 ( On the island of Mindanao, scene of interreligious strife, Christians and Muslims are gathering for a series of meetings during a "week of peace" organized by the Bishops-Ulema Conference.

The conference, which since 1999 has brought together annually Christian and Muslim leaders of Mindanao, and promotes dialogue and peace initiatives, has proposed as this year's theme "Cure With Forgiveness: The Way for Total Human Development."

Meetings have also been planned in areas where Christians are in a minority, such as Marawi, Basilan and Jolo.

The "week of peace," which started Thursday, has the government's support. To celebrate the occasion, Manila announced a number of development projects for Mindanao, stipulating a cease-fire with the rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Aware that a lasting peace requires more than a political agreement, the official statement of the Bishops-Ulema Conference acknowledges that there is a need for "social healing ... a healing through forgiveness."

Bishop Martin Jumoad of Isabela, in the southern island of Basilan, explained to the importance of the week for young people. "They are the future of Basilan," he said. "We must convince young people's minds of the value of peace."

Basilan, which has 300,000 inhabitants, 70% of whom are Muslims, and 28% Catholic, has been the focus of fierce confrontations between the military and Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. Many civilians have been killed or kidnapped. Despite the "week of peace," tension runs high and the conference has requested the presence of the army.

Established in 1996, the Bishops-Ulema Conference has as its directors Archbishop Fernando Capalla, future president of the Philippine Catholic episcopate; Mahid Mutila of the Ulema Philippine League; and Bishop Hilario Gomez of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

In the past, the conference has been called upon to mediate between the army and the guerrillas, or to help negotiate the release of hostages.

The conference has also played a fundamental role in the renewal of talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and both sides have asked Archbishop Capalla to be an adviser during the talks scheduled for December in Malaysia.