Catholics in favour of Bangsamoro autonomy in Mindanao

A referendum is scheduled over the new few weeks in Mindanao to ratify a new autonomy law. The Mindanao Catholic Church Leaders for Peace (MCCLP) believe it will remedy “historic injustices” suffered by the Muslim community. For PIME missionary, “Fear and promises tend to influence the various positions.”

Zamboanga (AsiaNews) – On 21 January and 6 February, voters will decide the fate of a new law, the Bangsamoro Organic Law, designed to set up an autonomous territory, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Named after the Moro people, it will be home to at least four million people, mostly Muslims.

For the Mindanao Catholic Church Leaders for Peace (MCCLP), a group of Catholic prelates, the law, which comes after a string of unsuccessful attempts, could be "the last concrete chance for a just and lasting peace in Mindanao”.

The law is based on the 2014 peace agreement, signed by the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s largest Muslim rebel group. The deal brought to an end almost 50 years of conflict that left 120,000 people dead and two million people displaced.

In today’s statement, the MCCLP notes that the new dispensation will address three "historical injustices" against the Muslim community: loss of ancestral territory, threats to their cultural identity, and loss of political governance.

For the group, the law "is more than just another piece of legislation; it is more significantly a peace agreement that involves the future development of Mindanao and the rest of the country."

What is more, “On our part, as Catholic religious leaders, we need to focus on the horizontal peace process on the ground,” which means “engaging in the dialogue of life, action and spirituality among ordinary Christians and Muslims.”

"We also need to commit [ourselves] to intra-faith and inter-faith dialogue towards mutual respect and understanding so as to reduce or eliminate biases and prejudices. Religion should be viewed as a bridge towards reconciliation, not a wall that divides.”

Reacting to such statements, "Muslims have welcomed Catholic support for the law, seen as a sign of solidarity towards their autonomist aspirations," said Fr Sebastiano D'Ambra, speaking to AsiaNews.

The clergyman is a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), and has been in Mindanao for over 40 years. He is also the founder of Silsilah, a movement for Islamic-Christian dialogue and is currently the executive secretary of the Commission for Interreligious Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

"The MCCLP back the BOL, but at the same time, it wants to underscore and defend Christian rights. Many Christians came to Mindanao from the north of the country, taking land that is now under dispute with Muslims. The law clearly states that we must respect all cultural groups and even the leaders of the MILF have promised to defend the religious freedom of Christians."

Despite the prospect for autonomy, Muslims continue to be divided over the autonomy law. According to the PIME missionary, "In certain places, there is hostility, and local officials have urged Muslims to oppose it.”

"Fear and promises tend to influence the various positions,” he explained. “Tensions are running high but for now everything is under control. The government has extended martial law and soldiers have been deployed in great numbers."

"People, Christians and Muslims, are starting to believe that the BOL is the solution to the conflicts that have affected Mindanao for years,” said Sarah L Handang, a Muslim educator and activist for interreligious dialogue in Zamboanga.

"The only thing we have is hope. Perhaps our dream of peace will come true. It is important that people understand the opportunity that this law represents for the region."