By Benjamin Moses M. Ebreo
He died in 2015 but left a legacy for his love for Filipinos.
The Rizal Shrine in Barangay Casat, Bayombong, Nueva Ecija, built by philanthropist Mahmoud Asfour now serves as a structure of how he treasured the values of Dr. Jose Rizal, one of the country’s most revered national heroes.
The shrine believed to be one of the biggest if not the biggest structures built in the country also shares the historical limelight with the busts of other national heroes of the country.
It now serves as a venue for the formal celebrations of national events such as Heroes Day, Philippine Independence Day and Rizal Day, among others.
Asfour, a Jordanian philanthropist turned Filipino died of health complications in September 2015.
Asfour’s shrine finally got its official tag as a national shrine from the National Historical Institute (NHI) on July 6, 2009, which gave it the formal recognition and highlighted by the unveiling of its marker.
Asfour along with the national officials of the NHI, officers of the Knights of Rizal, an organization that promotes the life and values of Rizal and local officials of this town jointly witnessed the unveiling of the shrine’s marker.
“This is a timely gift for Dr. Rizal and all the Filipinos who follow his values and deeds. This shrine is a symbol of my love and admiration for the values of Dr. Jose Rizal and other Filipino heroes,” Asfour then said.
Officials of the Provincial Tourism Office (PTO) here said the Rizal Shrine now serves as one of the tourist attractions in the province.
Towering over a 7.5-hectare complex, the 12-story high, 3-arch Romanesque structure covers the 16-meter high statue of Dr. Jose Rizal, claimed by Asfour as one of the world’s tallest Rizal monument.
At the shrine’s entrance is a 10-meter obelisk where the province’s history is etched while the main shrine is surrounded by 14 other national heroes and one for the unsung hero.
Other amenities of the shrine are children’s skating rink, water fountain, 9-meter flagpole, 2 story buildings for cultural, livelihood and medical services for indigent patients, conference rooms, a modern library, a computer resource center, basketball and tennis courts, and two helipads.
Asfour who settled in this town in 1991 married Marriam, with their children Abdullah, Hakim and Abeer 12.
In 2001, the provincial board here has recognized his deeds and services and passed a resolution adopting him as a son of Nueva Vizcaya.
But for Asfour, funding livelihood projects and sponsoring scholarship grants were just his ways of repaying a debt of gratitude to one Filipino.
According to him, his good impression of Filipinos began when his car bogged down in the middle of a desert in Saudi Arabia before the Gulf War. Stranded in the desert for two days, he said he was already dying from hunger and thirst when a Filipino truck driver found him and gave him water, shared a sandwich and then brought him home.
Since then Asfour started to repay Pinoy’s kindness by helping Filipino overseas foreign workers, sponsoring scholarship grants, provided livelihood projects, donated pump wells, farm implements, built houses for the poor and financial aid to fundraising projects.
He also paid salaries of several teachers, health workers and hospitalization of sick indigent families in Nueva Vizcaya and outside the province.
“If I see abandoned children and their parents, I help them. I reconstruct families by giving them something to work with for their income,” Asfour said.
A former vice president of Citibank International and a former official of the International Monetary Fund, Asfour then was a member of the IMF team that studied the country’s application for a P128 million loan.
In July 2005, Asfour’s bid for a Filipino nationality was issued by then President Gloria Macapagal – Arroyo after it was concurred by both the houses of congress and senate. (MDCT/BME/PIA 2-Nueva Vizcaya)