08/12/2008, 00.00
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Bishops and Islamic leaders appeal for resumption of negotiations

by Santosh Digal
The army is advancing, but more than 160,000 people have fled from their homes, leaving everything behind. Catholic bishops and Islamic leaders ask the government and rebels to resume talks.

Manila (AsiaNews) - Fighting continues between the army and the separatists of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in North Corabato (Mindanao), where more than 160,000 Catholics and Muslims have fled. The Catholic bishops and Islamic leaders are appealing to the parties to "be generous with each other" and resume peace talks.

The rebels of the MILF are retreating under the massive army offensive, prepared by days of bombings from mortars and from helicopters, and Major Armando Rico announces that the military has "liberated" seven villages and is advancing.

But it is clear that no one is close to victory in a conflict that has continued for almost 40 years, and caused more than 120,000 deaths.

Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, head of the Filipino Catholic bishops' conference, has asked the parties to suspend the fighting immediately, for the safety of the civilians, both Christian and Muslim. The television has shown the people, caught in the crossfire, running away and carrying the little that they are able to take with them. This is the harvest season, but the fields are abandoned, and often devastated by the fighting and by preparatory fire. At least 83 homes have been destroyed.

In recent days, "support" for the peace agreement has come from Orlando Quevedo, archbishop of Cotabato, and Antonio Ledesma, archbishop of Cagayan de Oro, who believe that it is a serious attempt "to balance national sovereignty and satisfy the aspiration for greater autonomy in the territories of Bangsamoro".

It is likely that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo will talk about the issue with the bishops tomorrow, when she visits the area.

The director of the office for Islamic affairs, Datu Ali B. Sangki, the well-known actor "Abdul Aziz" Padilla, and other Islamic leaders are calling for "peace and sobriety". Sangki maintains that the peace talks have been productive, and that the Arroyo government is seeking "a fair solution". He observes that the draft peace agreement provides for a referendum in the new areas to be incorporated into the new Islam region, allowing the population to ask to be exempted. "Let's give peace a chance", he repeats.

Padilla participated in Friday prayers for peace in the "OMA" mosque in Quezon City, in the northwest of Manila.

More than 1,000 Muslims have demonstrated for peace in front of the Golden Mosque in Quiapo (Manila). Pendatun Disimban, leader of the movement Bangsamoro Solidarity for Peace and the organizer of the demonstration, is nonetheless critical of the politicians of Mindanao, many of whom, he says, oppose the draft agreement to cover up their "land-grabbing activities" to the detriment of Muslims.

The two sides were close to signing a preliminary agreement to create the autonomous Islamic region of Mindanao, but on August 5 the supreme court blocked it, accepting the appeal from local authorities and many politicians, according to whom this agreement was not made public in its entirety, was not approved by the people concerned, and would have recognized a sort of Islamic state with great autonomy. In response, the MILF occupied a number of Christian cities.

This is also the moment for sensational symbolic gestures, like the one carried out by Major Lawrence Cruz and Grace Galindez-Gupana, a Christian, who entered the Guinness Book of World Records for making the largest flag in the world: they unfolded a Filipino flag over about two acres, at the high school in Iligan, to symbolize national unity between Muslims and Christians.

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