e used to be known as Father Stan among his flock in parishes around he goes by the name Muhammad, after the

great prophet of the faith he now calls his own. Three years ago, Estanislao Soria, a priest in the Archdiocese of Manila, made that great leap of faith from Christianity to Islam. He became Muhammad Soria, much to the consternation of his devout Catholic family. "My family was so hurt they wouldn't talk to me. Only the wife of my cousin understands. My elder brother respects me in theory, but he just tolerates me," said the 64year-old academic and former theologian. Anger was also the reaction of some of his former parishioners and friends, he said. It started with a challenge But Soria said he never backed down from his decision, knowing that even the Devil could not stop him from removing his priestly robes and embracing Islam. It was a decision that was political and even intellectual, he said, but it was also a matter of faith. His change of faith began when he challenged former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Nur Misuari's statement that everyone in Mindanao was a Moro. He came across the Gospel of Barnabas, a work purporting to be a depiction of the life of Jesus by his disciple Barnabas, and was "convinced" it held the truth. The Gospel of Barnabas says Jesus did not die from crucifixion but actually ascended to heaven alive. The man who was crucified was actually Judas Iscariot, the traitor. The gospel also foretells the coming of Muhammad. Majority of academics, including Christians He argued that many groups other than Muslims also lived in Mindanao, among them the Manobo and Sama tribes. At that time, he was teaching theology at the Ateneo de Manila University. Soria, a native of Dipolog City, then studied the history of Mindanao in order to back his argument with historical and sociological proofs. While he did find evidence that not all who lived in Mindanao were Moros, he also discovered something else. "I saw that the negative things associated with Muslims were not true, that they were actually being oppressed by the colonialists," he said."I thought Muslims were stupid and not wellinformed, and I wanted to convert them to Christianity," Soria said. But the opposite happened, he said. A different gospel and some Muslims, dismiss the Barnabas gospel as a pious fraud, but some Muslim scholars believe it to be genuine. Doubts about Trinity Soria said he had doubts about his faith as early as the time he was training to become a priest. He questioned the Christian concept of the Trinity and, when he was 21, even had an argument about it with his late father. When a seminarian has doubts about his faith, he leaves, said Soria. But he did not want to do that, so he continued his vocation and became a priest in 1988. His deeply Catholic upbringing had somehow influenced him into the religious life, he said. But that did not stop him from raising questions about his religion.He worked with two parishes in Taguig and another in Caloocan City. During this time, he became more and more outspoken about his doubts about the Catholic faith. Soon, he was transferred to the University of the Philippines-Diliman parish as assistant to "running priest" Fr. Robert Reyes, a longtime friend. Soria said his transfer to UP was meant to give a safe sanctuary for his views. But the liberal atmosphere at the university actually strengthened his resolve to make a momentous decision: To convert to Islam.

"My Arab Muslim friends told me I should not change my name…"

End to all doubts Soria became a Muslim on Sept. 2, 2002, some 14 years after he was ordained a priest. Unlike his doubt-riddled career as a diocesan priest, his conversion to Islam was a decision he was very sure of, he said. He is now used to the Muslim way of life and has even gone on five pilgrimages to Mecca, through the Islamic Dawah Movement, of which he is a member. His family and some of his friends could not understand his choice, but some have been supportive, he said. One of them is his friend "through-thick-and-thin" -Father Reyes. Sex is human Last year, Soria married Hannah, 24, after a betrothal arranged by a Baclaran imam (teacher). As a priest, he led a "really celibate"

life, but since converting to Islam, he said, he has adopted the Koran's teaching that sex is human and not to be disdained. An activist during his teaching days at Ateneo, Soria is currently working with various groups to defuse Muslim-Christian tensions, particularly after the bloody Camp Bagong Diwa prison siege last week. Tension between 2 faiths He said tension already existed between the two faiths in this predominantly Catholic nation, but it only worsened because of the government's handling of the attempted jailbreak. Historically, terrorism has been committed by those in power, he said. This was true even during the Spanish rule in the Philippines, except that it was the colonizers who portrayed the “indios” (natives) as the terrorists. "[Jose] Rizal, [Andres]

Bonifacio were terrorists, according to the Spaniards. Today, they are national heroes," he said. Soria said he was not ready to become an imam. "I can be but I'd rather not. I don't feel I'm well-versed enough with the Muslim tradition," he said. Father Stan, still Even though he changed his name to Muhammad, Soria said his friends still call him Father Stan, "including the Muslims." "My Arab Muslim friends told me I should not change my name, so people would know I'm a Catholic priest who converted to Islam," he said. "Pinagmamalaki nila yon (They are proud of that)," he said.
(Publish in Daily Inquirer, March 23, 2005)

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