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A special Report by ICC

02/13/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – A peace deal between the Philippine national government and Islamic secessionist rebels over the island of Mindanao could signal the end of a 40-year conflict, but it might be at the cost of religious freedom and more persecution for Christians.
Although the Philippines is a predominantly Christian country, several of its southern provinces are mainly Muslim, and Christians in the area have suffered constant persecution at the hands of extremist Muslim groups, who have been fighting a violent war for a separate Islamic state in the Muslim-dominated island of Mindanao.
In July 2012, the president’s administration came under heavy criticism after a 67-year-old Dutch community worker, Willem Geertman, was gunned down outside his office in Angeles City by two men on a motorcycle. Several human rights advocacy groups were enraged by the killing and dubbed the nation as “one of the most dangerous places for foreign missionaries.”
According to Cristina Palabay, spokesperson for human rights organization Karapatan, Geertman was “the 95th extra-judicial killing” under the president’s rule. More than a year earlier, a 59-year-old Italian missionary, Father Fausto “Pops” Tentorio, was also killed in Mindanao.
Most attacks against Christians are at the hands of Muslim terror groups, who control four provinces on the island of Mindanao, under the name of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). But incidents also occur outside the ARMM, as extremists have constantly sought to expand their reign of terror. Several terror organizations are active in the area, with at least one of them having links to al-Qaeda.
Extremist terrorists in the Mindanao region believe that killing a Christian will guarantee them a place in heaven. They have burned the homes of hundreds of Christian families and killed dozens of Christians. They are also responsible for bombings at train stations, on buses and in other areas of Mindanao.
But in a bid to end the hostility, President Benigno S. Aquino III signed a peace accord in October 2012, with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a major Muslim separatist group in Mindanao. According to the agreement, a new semi-autonomous region will be created instead of an independent state. It will be named Bangsamoro, a word to identify the local Islamic community. It will remain subject to the Philippine constitution, but will be governed by Sharia law instead of the nation’s civil code.
The peace deal is expected to be rolled out into effect over a period of three years, during which commentators expect infighting and unrest among radical groups, along with increased persecution of Christians. Although the agreement precludes Christians from being subject to Sharia law, it is feared that a new Islamic sub-state itself creates unfavorable conditions for Christians, and even moderate Muslims, in the region.
As Ryan Morgan, ICC’s Regional Manager for Southeast Asia, said, “While we applaud efforts by the Philippine government to establish a lasting peace with groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, we are very concerned for Christians living in the region which may soon fall under Sharia law. Unconfirmed reports indicate Christians may already be facing violent treatment at the hands of radicals currently in the area, and we strongly urge the Philippine government to investigate these reports and do everything possible to ensure the safety and religious freedom of its Christian citizens.”
Furthermore, as the emergence of Bangsamoro becomes a reality, neither peace nor protection for Christians can be assumed by an agreement with just the MILF, who are only part of an extremist landscape that has caused bloodshed in Mindanao since 1972. One of the most obvious threats to peace and to Christians comes from competing Islamic radical groups who have rejected the deal and have promised violent reactions if the government moves forward with the “unauthorized” agreement.
In response to the peace deal, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) said that the agreement is a violation of the “failed peace agreement” it made with Manila in 1996. It warned that discarding the earlier agreement could lead to a backlash. Habib Mujahab Hashim, Chairman of the MNLF’s Islamic Command Council, said, “For us, this is doubletalk, a betrayal on the part of the government on the MNLF.” He added that the government should not underestimate the MNLF’s strength at present. Other groups have pledged their support for the deal, on condition that it results in “real independence” for the people of Mindanao.
The new deal also holds out the hope of economic progress, which may have been one of the motivating factors behind its completion. Due to constant guerrilla warfare in the region, foreign investors have stayed clear of Mindanao, despite it being home to most of the country’s natural resources, especially gold mines. With the new deal, the government hopes to woo investors into the region and stimulate the nation’s economic recovery.
Although leaders are optimistic about the deal’s potential to bring peace and economic prosperity, it appears that religious freedom and the safety of Christians will suffer in the bargain. The president will need to take immediate concrete steps to assure the Christian minority that his fight for peace will not conclude with signing the deal, but will continue until Christians are guaranteed protection of their constitutional rights to practice their faith without fear of intimidation, harassment or violence.