“In some areas of Mindanao we are experiencing exactly the same thing as is happening in Iraq,” says Father Sebastiano D’Ambra, an Italian missionary of the PIME congregation who has been working for almost 50 years now in the Philippines. He was speaking on the phone to the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
“The situation is a worrying one,” adds Father Sebastiano, referring to the anti-Christian attacks that took place on Christmas Day in the south of Mindanao. “It is difficult to establish for certain whether the violence was directed specifically against Christians, even though everything points to the fact that this was the case. Without doubt our brothers and sisters in the faith are one of the targets of these fundamentalist groups.”
He goes on to explain that the attacks were carried out by the members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Biif), a paramilitary Islamist terrorist group that emerged in 2008 following a split in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (M I LF). In 2011 the government in Manila signed a peace accord with the MILF, with both sides pledging to engage in negotiations to establish a new law, the Bangsamoro Basic Law, that would guarantee a special status to the region.
“But the agreements with the government have been put on hold because the Filipino authorities attach greater priority to the presidential and legislative elections planned for 9th May 2016. And so radical groups like the BIIF, which have absolutely no desire to negotiate with Manila, are taking advantage of the instability of the situation to engage in terrorist disturbances.”
Islamic radicalism has a long history on Mindanao. Already back in the 1990s the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group was widely active, and was responsible for the murder of the PIME missionary Father Salvatore Carzedda in 1992. The radicalisation continued with the proliferation of Islamist movements of a Wahabi inspiration, supported from Saudi Arabia, while for the past 10 years or so there has been a powerful presence of the Jemaah Islamiah, an Islamist group that began in Indonesia.
“In the last three years the so-called Islamic State has gained a growing number of supporters in Mindanao. ISIS is present here too, albeit not in such an extreme form as in the Middle East.” Father Sebastiano also points to the fact that many Islamic leaders on this island, which has a strong Muslim presence, have urged their own people not to celebrate Christmas together with the Christians, although this is an ancient and deeply rooted custom in the Philippines.
Zamboanga is quite far from the place where the Christmas attacks occurred, and the news went almost unreported by the media, because the government is attempting to play it down in view of the forthcoming elections. Nonetheless, in the local Christian communities the fears are growing, above all because they still retain a vivid memory of the attack carried out by the MILF in 2013 which destroyed half of the town, left numerous people dead and more than 10,000 homes in flames. “Since then the Christians have been extremely cautious in regard to the Muslims, while the Muslims themselves complain of a local government by the majority Christian community (approximately 70%) that does not reflect the growth of their own community.”
Father Sebastiano is the founder of the Silsilah movement which has been attempting since 1984 to promote interreligious dialogue and which has also involved a section of the local Muslim community.
“The growth of radicalism throughout the world is making our mission more difficult and still more necessary than ever at the present time. Even some of the Islamic leaders who are working together with us are becoming discouraged. We need to have more courage and more faith. It is a long process, but I am convinced that through dialogue it is possible to bring about real change and create a climate of mercy. Just as Pope Francis is inviting us to do in this Holy Year.”
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN) www.acnmalta.org (Malta)