Filipino bishops praise "historic peace agreement" between government and MILF
Decades of war with Muslim separatist rebels in the south ended today in a ceremony in Manila. Some 10,000 fighters celebrate the peace deal in Maguindanao. The Catholic Church renews call for talks with the MNLF and other groups in Mindanao. Human development is needed for peace, prelates say.

Manila (AsiaNews) - The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has welcomed today's peace agreement between the Filipino government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). For Mgr Socrates Villegas, archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan and CBCP president, he deal represents a "milestone" in the peace process and an end to Mindanao separatism.

During the ceremony, attended by over a thousand people, Filipino President Benigno Aquino said the peace agreement "can lead to a permanent change in Muslim Mindanao". Echoing the president, Moro Islamic Liberation Front Chief Murad Ebrahim, noted that "The comprehensive agreement on Bangsamoro is the crowning glory of our struggle".

Signed at in Manila, the deal brings to an end one of Asia's longest (and bloodies) separatist wars. About 10,000 (former) MILF fighters and supporters welcomed it at Camp Darapanan, in Sultan Kudarat, a town in Maguindanao province.

"Like all peace-loving Filipinos, we rejoice with our countrymen as we mark a milestone in the peace process with the signing of the peace agreement between the Filipino government and the MILF," said Mgr Socrates Villegas.

Christians will pray for the deal's success, he added, so that "this first brave step will be followed by more steps towards a true and lasting peace in Mindanao."

In their appeal, the bishop called on the government to pursue a path of peace that includes broad-based "consultations and an honest, open and trusting dialogue" with groups like the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), another important Muslim separatist group.

Bishop Villegas hopes that such consultations and talks will include all Mindanao groups - particularly those who feel ignored or relegated to the margins like the MNLF. In fact, for him, "The strength of the agreement lies in everyone's willingness to reach out to those who are oppose".

What is more, Mindanao's economy needs a boost. Without human development, there can be no peace. Any delay is too much "for the people of Mindanao who have been suffering for decades," the Bishop Villegas explained.

For several decades, the MILF has sought to win the independence of Mindanao and its surrounding islands, a region that contains an estimated US$ 312 billion in mineral resources.

In order to the end a war that left thousands of people dead, the two sides signed a five-page Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) on 24 January, in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. The deal opens the way for the creation by 2016 of an Autonomous Government of Bangsamoro in lieu the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The new arrangement grants Muslims self-government in parts of Mindanao in exchange of a cease-fire and the disarmament of Muslim rebels. However, the deal is threatened by Muslim groups opposed to it as well as from resistance within the Filipino state.

Made up of former MILF fighters, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) has a reputation for violence. Opposed to the deal, it continues to attract fighters who are unwilling to lay down their weapons.

For its part, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) is equally opposed to the peace plan. Back in September, it tried to disrupt the peace process by conducting a series of violent attacks that left more than 200 people dead.

The deal is also not going to find it any easier among some members of the Filipino Congress, or in the Supreme Court, which could strike down some of its provisions as unconstitutional.