12-story Rizal shrine is Jordanian's gift to Filipinos
First posted 05:10am (Mla time) Dec 29, 2005 By Melvin GasconInquirer Editor's Note: Published on page A1 of the Dec. 29, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya -- It was a sunny Christmas morning, an ideal time for 55-year-old philanthropist Mahmoud Asfour to be giving away gifts to children in the nearby farming village of Casat.
But the man many people here regard as a year-round Santa Claus was nowhere in sight.
His imposing mansion was quiet and the village folk who were scheduled to queue for his presents were busy drying their freshly harvested palay (unhusked rice).
On that day, Asfour -- a former Jordanian who acquired Filipino citizenship six months ago -- was on top of a hill, checking on his greatest gift to Filipinos: A shrine to Dr. Jose Rizal said to be the biggest of its kind in the world.
To Asfour, the shrine is a symbol of the Filipinos' unity and hope. He says its construction was inspired by love and by the heroism of those who fought for freedom.
A giant bronze bust of Rizal will be installed in the structure.
Value of patriotism
"This is a historical, cultural and educational shrine, which will teach our children the values of patriotism, love for fellowmen and unity in the family," said Asfour, a father of three.
He said he hoped the shrine would cause a transformation in a country beset by "corruption, depression and other ills of society."
The shrine, which faces east, offers a panoramic view of a surrounding valley and the greenery of sprawling rice fields that complement the urban landscape of Solano and Bayombong towns.
Behind the complex lurk the Cordillera mountains.
A sweeping glance
From the shrine, on a clear sunny day, said Asfour, one could glimpse the towns of Bagabag, Quezon and Ambaguio in Nueva Vizcaya province and Lamut and Lagawe towns in Ifugao province.
"It takes you two-and-a-half hours to travel by land to all these towns. Here, all it takes is a single, sweeping glance," he said.
Perched on the tips of the concrete arches is a 3-meter fiberglass globe installed with 16 100-watt bulbs that light the village's skyline at night.
Asfour described his project as the "Filipinos' gift to the world," offered to people of all races whose lives were touched by Rizal.
He had intended to complete the shrine in time for the observance of Rizal's 109th death anniversary on Dec. 30. But bad weather in the past weeks delayed its inauguration.
He said he needed two more weeks to complete the finishing work, including plastering of the arches and the laying of about 1,500 square meters of marble tiles.
At the shrine's entrance is a 10-meter tower where the province's 175-year history is etched. The main complex also has a welcome arch, a children's skating rink with a globe at the center, a water fountain and a nine-meter flagpole.
The main shrine is surrounded by 14 seven-foot arches that will house the busts of the country's other heroes.
Asfour said the shrine would have audio-visual presentations depicting the lives of heroes and their contributions to history.
He has yet to decide which heroes would occupy the 14 smaller shrines that are lined up alongside candle-shaped concrete railings that enclose the main complex.
For the children
"The candles symbolize our heroes as lights that would teach our children the right path, and a constant reminder of how they taught us the value of sacrifice," Asfour said.
The shrine will also house an eye and dental clinic that will treat indigent patients for free, a conference room for the Knights of Rizal, a modern library and an online computer resource center.
"It will give our children everything they need to know: History, geography, everything. They can use the computers and learn about the latest technology. They can zoom in on satellite pictures of even the smallest thing in their neighborhood, at their fingertips," Asfour said.
Room for helicopters
At the foot of the hill are two 2-story buildings that will serve as training centers for food processing, cosmetology and caregiver courses, trainees' dormitories, and a sports and recreation facility.
Built next to the complex are two helipads, the bigger of which can accommodate four helicopters at a time.
With God's help
Asfour spends most of his time supervising workers at the construction site.
"I am the architect, the engineer, the artist. I'm building it with the help of God," he said.
Asfour said he drew inspiration for the shrine from his family's "generations of relationship with Rizal."
But the idea of building the shrine first came to Asfour when he arrived in the country 24 years ago to repay a Filipino truck driver who he said saved his life.
Like the Good Samaritan, the man had stopped to give Asfour food and water as he lay unconscious in his car in the Arabian desert.
Then newly married to his Filipino wife, Zenaida, Asfour first caught a glimpse of the hills of Casat from a house in La Torre village where he once lived.
"That can well be the best place for a heroes' shrine," he had said then.
The rest is history.