Duterte warns of “religious war” in Mindanao, Church and analysts disagree

Christians “have better guns. They are buying,” said the president. Analysts dismiss his view as baseless attempt to justify martial law. For Card Orlando Quevedo, archbishop of Cotabato, the government should “address the economic and political roots of terrorism” rather than focus on a military solution.

Zamboanga (AsiaNews) – In his latest controversial statement, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte said that a civil war might break out between Christians and Muslims on the island of Mindanao (southern Philippines), something that local analysts exclude.

The country’s Catholic Church has taken a more realistic approach to the crisis that broke out in Lanao del Sur province on 23 May. For Card Orlando Beltran Quevedo of Cotabato, focus should be on fighting the social injustices that cause extremism.

Yesterday, President Duterte met with wounded soldiers in Cagayan De Oro. He warned that if the violence unleashed by Maute terrorists spilled over into other parts of Mindanao, Christians would arm themselves, and a civil war with Muslims might ensue.

“Because if there’s civil war, there would be killings. Here in Mindanao, there are more Christians and they have better guns. They are buying. The rich ones, they’re stockpiling guns,” he said.

Duterte said the armed forces would then have to deal not just with Maute terrorists but also armed Christians.

Analysts who spoke to AsiaNews strongly reject this possibility, dismissing his view as baseless. Duterte is not new to this type of remarks, often rectified by his spokespeople.

According to experts, his claims are an attempt to justify the decision to impose martial law on the island of Mindanao, which has been a major discussion point among politicians and ordinary Filipinos over the past month.

However, Duterte's words are rash, and no longer reflect reality. True, in the past, Christians in Mindanao armed themselves against Muslim rebels. However, these groups have not been active for some time, except in some clashes between local Muslims Moros and the government."

Most Muslims are now engaged in peace talks with the central government and are ready to fight alongside Filipino troops against Maute Jihadis who are behind the siege in Marawi.

The rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the authoritative voice of Mindanao Muslims, have recently fought against Maute terrorists, some of whom are from the Middle East and uninterested in the local aspirations for autonomy.

Since the start of the Marawi siege, the Catholic Church has worked to alleviate the suffering of the population. Catholic help for the displaced have moved Muslims, creating important opportunities for dialogue between the two.

Muslim religious leaders have condemned the desecration of Marawi’s Catholic Cathedral and called for the release of Fr Teresito ‘Chito’ Suganob, who is still held by terrorists along with other Christians.

"With the tragic reality of terrorism, interreligious dialogue has become more imperative and indispensable," said Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, archbishop of Cotabato.

“Dealing with social injustices, real or perceived, is key to combating terrorism, not military intervention,” he added. "The government has to address the economic and political roots of terrorism”.

Mindanao is the Philippines’s richest island in terms of resources, but it has some of the poorest provinces, like Lanao del Sur, where Marawi is located.

According to official statistics, poverty in the province – which has a population of 1 million – has worsened over the last decade. From just 44 per cent in 2006, it rose dramatically to 74.3 per cent in 2015.

Decades of government neglect, inequality, and political exclusion have spurred numerous rebel groups into waging an insurgency for greater autonomy over more than four decades.

Eleven of the country’s 20 poorest provinces are in Mindanao, which has about 21 million people.