Mere minutes from stepping out of an AirPhil Express' flight to Cotabato City, a different kind of smoldering excitement stuttered up my veins. I've heard a lot about this city, mostly negative ones. The kind that warns you not to go out walking on your own and other paranoia fed by mainstream media. As Lauren and I got out of the small airport terminal, we were greeted by dozens of marines manning their positions, armed with long rifles, standing on guard with an alert set of eyes, hidden behind their dark rip-off Oakley sunglasses - the kind of gaze that makes you feel it at the back of your head. I nodded at one of them and a few of them smiled back. I said to myself, here we are now, in the city most often mis-understood and I wonder if I will go home with a new found understanding of this city, or be just one of those who'll say "I told ya so - the place is dangerous". I remember that moment, as we flagged a tricycle driver to take us to the Golden Mosque, the feeling of fear is in a wait-and-see situation.
The Golden Mosque or otherwise known as Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Masjid is located at Barangay Kalanganan, some seven kilometers from the city center. It lies in the middle of a vast land sandwiched by the Tamontaka River, the waters leading to the Moro Gulf and the Timako Hill. We caught a glimpse of it from the air, while the plane is circling for landing. It's massive as seen from afar and what more when you find yourself standing mere meters from it.
When we got there we found the Mosque almost empty with only a few personnel of the construction company serving as caretakers. They welcomed us and invited us to go inside. We went inside barefooted as the custom of entering a Mosque everywhere. How splendid and imposing is it at the outside, the inside was a picture of holiness. I can imagine a Muslim brother and sister, kneeling deep in prayer and communing with God. It is what every house of worship should be.
As someone belonging to another religion, it was a fresh experience to get a feel of how my fellowmen from other religion practice their faith. Too bad, I didn't witnessed the actual day of service and prayer. Somehow, just by being inside the Mosque, same with my previous experiences of visiting other temples and even old churches, I get a picture of how men fully enrich their spirituality.
The Golden Mosque is said to have costed $48 million and funded by Sultan Bolkiah of Brunei. I haven't been to many mosques before, but this one reminds me of another stunning mosque in Kota Kinabalu, the one near Likas Bay.
The sun was out in full force that day, it proved to be a good omen as the skies was out in full blue. The scattered white clouds presented a perfect backdrop for this impressive structure. Staring at it from a short distance - you can't help but beam with awe. The gigantic structure as outlined by the curves and intricate designs influenced by Arabic architecture, all the more brings a powerful image especially from this outsider onlooker.
Even though I belong to a different religion, I felt at home and at ease. Soon my hidden fears of Cotabato City vanishes and was replaced by a new stream of interests and open mindedness. We walked inside the courtyard under the red hot sun, and even barefooted, we barely felt the heat of the floor. The wind coming from all four directions creates a magical flow of new found spirituality, I imagine as it does so often for the faithful who converge on this mosque each day of assembly.
Still standing outside and preparing to leave, I looked back again at the minarets and as a flock of birds flew by with a few gliding gently on the dome shaped towers and a lone bird slowly landed on one of the crescent moon. A blissful quiet filled the air. The only sound I heard was of the wind blowing and the angelic voice of my girlfriend Lauren telling me how beautiful the place is.
Soon, a Chinese family arrived and also went inside to tour the mosque, the patriarch had a small talk with Lauren. He told her it was their first time to visit the Mosque even though they are residents of Cotabato City. The reason why is because, they are afraid of being kidnapped when they pass through the coastal highway. I told Lauren, we would never know if such fears are unfounded or not as we're not living in Cotabato City, the important thing is, that we never let fear occupy us.
As we rode the tricycle back to the city, Lauren with her ever studying eyes pointed to me the various churches from different denominations built around Cotabato City. It was obvious to us that day - that religious prejudice is non-existent in Cotabato City. Some of the fears I had like being targeted for being a Christian in Cotabato City is unfounded. As Jaffar - our new friend, we met two days later, would point out, both Muslims and Christians live harmoniously in this City, same with other places, crimes do happen and it won't hurt to be extra careful and alert, but such generalization of fear is unwarranted. Oh how, a quick visit to this mosque have taught me, there's nothing to fear but fear itself. Especially in a place where the crescent moon stands so high, reminding everyone that it is the symbol of peace.