Father Robert Layson at his residence in Kulaman
A priest who spent years promoting peace in areas of conflict in the southern Philippines remembers how the fighting brought together Christian and Muslim communities who declared their villages “zones of peace.”
“The seed we planted is growing but we need to nurture it,” Father Robert Layson, priest of senator Ninoy Aquino parish, said after celebrating Holy Mass in Sultan Kudarat
Father Layson was referring to his former role in the peace process in Mindanao where he was instrumental in forging a ceasefire between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). He was the former parish priest of Pikit, North Cotabato, where the conflict began in 2003.
“I was challenged emotionally and physically protecting civilians during armed skirmishes after seeing the destruction it brought upon people,” the Oblates of the Mary Immaculate priest said.
That same year, Father Layson along with several peace advocates brokered the Bantay (Watch) ceasefire in order to prevent human rights violations in North Cotabato, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur.
“We approached the government forces and the MILF so we could arrange a way of making innocent civilians more secure and protected, especially during fighting,” Father Layson said.
Efforts to help communities caught up in the conflict led to the creation of Ginapaladtaka, an acronym for seven villages that united and formed the “zones of peace.” Combatants from both sides were not allowed carry weapons when entering Ginapaladtaka’s boundaries.
Father Layson said that while it was important to help these affected communities, the need to politically engage the government and the rebels had to be followed up.
“We also sought a meeting with the late general, Angelo Reyes, and other military leaders,” Father Layson said, as well as top MILF officials to tell them about underlying problems and the problems being caused in the conflict-affected areas.
“People planted the seed of peace, and are letting it grow,” the priest said.
Right now, Father Layson is focused on raising funds for his poor parish.
“When I took up my post here in Kulaman, Church workers had not been paid for six months while the teachers of the school run by the Oblates of the Mary Immaculate had gone without a salary for at least a year,” he said. There were also attempts to close the school down due to a lack of funds.
“I accompanied parishioners to meetings with Archbishop Orlando Quevedo in Cotabato, after which the archdiocese decided to support the school financially,” Father Layson said.
The Catholic school is now fully operational, thanks also to a three-year funding package from a foreign foundation.