Catholic Church leaders in the southern Philippines have ramped up their call for the ratification of a law that will facilitate the creation of a new autonomous Muslim region
in Mindanao. With the Jan. 21 plebiscite to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law
looming, the region's Catholic bishops issued a statement voicing their support for the law, although "with some observations." "As Catholic religious leaders, we need to focus on the peace process on the ground," read the statement signed by 15 prelates who called themselves the Mindanao Catholic Church Leaders for Peace. They said the Bangsamoro Organic Law was 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," the statement said. "After many failed attempts, this may be the last concrete chance for a just and lasting peace in Mindanao," it added. The heads of Catholic universities in the region also signed the statement. The church leaders said they were aware of the "many challenges" in implementing the law, but it would be up to local residents to ensure the new autonomous region functions. Earlier, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato
, one of the statement's signatories, said the new law would address longstanding injustices against the Muslim community. The Catholic leaders also cited the need to commit to "intra-faith and interfaith dialogue towards mutual respect and understanding so as to reduce or eliminate biases and prejudices." "Religion should be viewed as a bridge toward reconciliation, not a wall that divides," read the statement. The church leaders noted that the proposed law recognizes that the new region, which will be called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, "shall always be an integral, indivisible and inseparable part of the national territory of the country." While Shariah law will be implemented, it will not cover non-Muslims, unless they voluntarily submit to the jurisdiction of the Shariah court. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which entered into a peace deal with the Philippine government in 2014, welcomed the support of non-Muslims for the setting up of a new region. "We shall be forever grateful," said rebel leader Hadji Murad Ebrahim.
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About 2.8 million people are expected to take part in the plebiscite next week. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has already declared Jan. 21 a non-working holiday in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the city of Cotabato and Isabela City in Basilan "to give the people ... the opportunity to actively and fully participate in the plebiscite and exercise their right to vote." Once ratified, the Bangsamoro Organic Law will pave the way for the replacement of the current autonomous region.