15 April 2014 | Melanie Smith
For more than four centuries, religious conflict has plagued the island of Mindanao in the Philippines costing in recent years some 150,000 lives, displacing two million people and destroying countless homes.
But a recent peace agreement between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippines government brings hope to those working to bring religious harmony to their homeland.
Photo credit: Christian Aid/ Melanie Smith
Before Spanish settlers arrived in the Philippines in 1521, the southern islands of Mindanao and Sulu were under Islamic rule. The refusal of Muslim communities to submit to the colonists led to violence, exploitation and ultimately their marginalisation.
Centuries later American colonisers tried to integrate these Mindanao-based Muslims – known as Moros in the Philippines – into the wider Christian-led society, a tactic that was met with increased social unrest and conflict, and led to the Moros being subjugated.
Ever since, the Muslim population has remained generally isolated from decision making, with separatist movements causing resentment between Christians and Muslims, and both sides experiencing violence and injustice.
Folklore has kept alive the memory of massacres by foreigners (notably the Americans), leading to a distrust people of other faiths, backgrounds or ethnicities.
Sultan Maguid Maruhom, of Muslim organisation Ummah Fi Salam, says this has led to major inequalities.
‘The Muslims in our area lag behind in every human development index,’ he said. ‘This is because of lack of education, exclusion and inequality, lack of social services and healthcare. They also tend to shun modernity and education as vestiges of western civilisation.’
Yet, there are people – of both religions – whose mission is to reconcile the two communities.
Joey Clemente, of Christian Aid’s partner organisation Social-Pastoral Institute (SPI) and Sultan Maguid, of its sister organisation Ummah Fi Salam, work together to build peace.
Joey explains: ‘The sad fact was that religion was used to divide rather than bring people together.
‘We changed the conversation from ‘what is the right religion?’ – our response being the one that makes you the best version of yourself – to ‘what can we do together to lessen human misery and promote life?’’
Interfaith meetings were organised to encourage Moros and Christians to realise the importance of changing things for the better, to respect one another and break down the walls of marginalisation.
Once relationships of mutual trust were established, they began to work together to address issues that affected everyone, such as preparing for natural disasters like last year’s Typhoon Haiyan.
Ummah Fi Salam was formed in 2002 with the support of Christian Aid and SPI to promote justice and improve relations between people of different faiths and cultures.
Hopes for the future
The hope now is that the peace agreement marks the start of a new beginning.
The agreement will give the Moros a form of cultural self-rule and allow them more control of their own resources. It stops short, however, of granting them an independent state, which had been the main demand of insurgent groups, but guarantees equal rights for all, regardless of religion, culture or ethnicity.
Moro culture will be integrated into education, and aspects of Shariah law will be implemented, while the traditional and customary laws of the indigenous population will also be respected.
Sultan Maguid is hopeful this will bring about change for the better.
‘Since this peace deal is supported by the overwhelming majority of the Muslim population, we are hopeful that some kind of transformation can happen, and communities will be able to participate in governance and become responsible citizens,’ he said.
‘We also expect that a serious program to promote interfaith dialogue between people of different faiths and cultures in the affected areas will strengthen reconciliation, and trust will be vigorously promoted.
‘I believe the longest standing conflict in southeast Asia is now coming to an end with this peace deal.’
Joey Clemente was happily surprised at the agreement – not least because previous peace talks broke down over MILF’s sticking point of an independent state.
‘It means a lot to the people who have suffered from the war that there is now a legal pathway to peace via this agreement,’ he said.
‘Leaders are hopeful that this will work out even though there are forces - especially smaller groups of Muslim rebels and some traditional politicians - that will try to subvert the process if they are given an opportunity.
‘The people of Mindanao are tired of fighting and are now looking for alternatives to war. I believe that because of that – even though there will no doubt be incidents of violence far into our future - people will work hard to make peace succeed.’
Melanie Smith is a Press officer at Christian Aid.
Find out more:
The original blog was featured in theHuffington Post