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A special Report by ICC
8/1/13 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Recent attacks have confirmed the fears about the safety of Christians, which followed an agreement between the Philippine government and Muslim separatists over the establishment of a sub-state under Sharia law.
On June 1, around 160 Christians were forced to flee their villages after being attacked by Muslim extremists. At about 9 am, an estimated 300 men fired more than five mortars, in an attempt to harm and intimidate unsuspecting residents in the villages of Malipayon, Saban of Barnagay, Maybula and New Bunawan, according to Voice of the Martyrs (VOM).
As a result, the Christians were forced to flee and cannot go back, afraid that extremists will only kill them and burn their homes to the ground if they return. The Christians who fled the attacks are in need of food, mosquito nets, bed sheets, sleeping mats and medicine. Many have fallen ill because they weren’t able to take their medication with them during their escape.
With limited information emerging, much remains to be known about the nature and the motives of the attack. However, as Ryan Morgan, International Christian Concern’s Regional Manager for Southeast Asia, says, “If correct, the reports that armed Islamic militants are actively attacking and driving out Christians from their homes in the Southern Philippines is extremely alarming. The Philippine government must be certain that Christians are protected before any more concessions are granted to radical groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.”
‘Peace’ Agreement
In October 2012, President Benigno S. Aquino III responded to criticism over the murder of a Christian community worker by expediting a peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a major Muslim separatist group in Mindanao. According to the agreement, a new semi-autonomous region, Bangsamoro, will be formed, where Sharia law will be enforced instead of the nation’s civil code.
Although the agreement precludes Christians from being subject to Sharia law, it was feared that a new Islamic sub-state itself, created unfavorable conditions for Christians and even moderate Muslims in the region.
If the recent attacks against Christians are anything to go by it confirms the fear that Christians will only be at further risk in a region that was already hostile to them. 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).
The Philippine government could be seen as compromising the safety of the minority Christian population in Mindanao for the sake of farcical peace and political mileage.
Mindanao is home to multiple terrorist outfits, who don’t get along well with each other and whose connections are sustained simply out of necessity to coexist in difficult and isolated terrain. But according to recent reports, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has turned against the terror outfit, Abu Sayyaf, rumored to have links with Al-Qaeda. MNLF numbers are much higher than those of Abu Sayyaf and their strategy could prove instrumental in establishing a broader peace deal in the southern Philippines. This would end opposition to peace within Abu Sayyaf ranks and help the MILF seal a peace deal with Manila, according to The Diplomat.
Seeking Re-election
However, this peace is farcical because it does not take into account the intimidation and harassment of Christians in the region by the majority extremist population. Despite being exempted from Sharia by the letter of the law, there is every reason to suspect that Christians will only be even more endangered in the future.
At the same time, President Aquino’s political ambition is hard to disguise. In February 2013, he made a daring visit to the outskirts of the MILF camp on Mindanao, despite warnings of danger. Speaking to Muslim leaders, diplomats and local residents, he said, “We are near the fruits of our labor. This is not the time for our hearts to grow faint. We have just three years and four months left. We have to speed up everything we are doing now to make this permanent.”
But Aquino’s aggressive efforts to move forward are being seen as an effort to seal a peace deal in time for his re-election in 2016. His concern for Christians is in question, with the leeway being given to radicals in the region. As Ryan Morgan also says, “The ever-greater level of authority being granted to formerly or currently militant Islamic groups in Mindanao is a serious potential threat to the religious freedom of Christians and others who fall under their sphere of influence.”
Although the peace deal holds promise for the end of a 40-year conflict, its merits must be weighed against the possible outcome of intensified persecution against Christians in the region, something that seems to be confirmed with the fresh reports of persecution related violence in Mindanao.
With the government seceding their authority over the region, it is possible that the serious plight of Christians has not been fully understood, which only casts doubt on whether their rights will be protected by the government in the new Mindanao. To calm the fears of Christians in South Philippines, Aquino needs to be as concerned about their safety as he is about his own re-election.