Mindanao Christians fear being left on the shelf

Minorities voice concerns over what role they will play when Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for Muslims comes into effect
Mindanao Christians fear being left on the shelf

Leaders of the group Christians for Peace pose for a photograph with Governor Mujiv Hataman (seated center) of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao during a forum last month. (Photo by Jigger Jerusalem)

Christians in the southern Philippines are pressing for what they described as "policies that will be inclusive to all" once a new autonomous political entity for Muslims is in place.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed a law in July that provides for the establishment of an entity known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

The law is part of a peace agreement signed by the government and Moro rebels in 2014.

Non-Muslim groups in the region, however, said that while they support the creation of a new autonomous Muslim region, they also want to have a voice in the entity they will belong to.

"What is the participation of the Christian community in the Bangsamoro region? [This] is what we are gathering by way of consensus-building," said Father Ramonito Torres, one of the convenors of a group called Christians for Peace.

He said the organization is an initiative aimed at gathering concerns of religious minorities in the predominantly Muslim region.

"It's a reality that we Christians are the minority in areas affected by the [new political entity]," said the priest.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, 91.3 percent of the region's 3.8 million population are Muslims.

Only about 312,440 people are non-Muslims.

Father Torres said his group has been holding "consensus-building activities" in various provinces that will fall under the new region.

A "Christian policy agenda" will be submitted to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front for consideration, said the priest.

Among the issues raised by Christian communities in the region are "equitable representation" in the Bangsamoro parliament other than the two seats reserved for Christian representatives; the issuance of "anti-discriminatory policies" regarding the hiring and appointment of Christians; strict implementation of election laws; and the protection of land ownership and settlement of land disputes.

"Our fears in going through the transition are the fears of having the wrong information, not being prepared for changes that will come and being left out," said the priest.

He said rather than adopting a "wait-and-see attitude," being "pro-active and is the proper course of action in this situation for Christians."

A series of inter-religious dialogues are scheduled in the coming months for people to understand that the "role of Christian communities ... is to journey with or to be with their Muslim neighbors."

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"It's not just peaceful co-existence anymore but a convergence of Muslims and Christians. They have to help each other," said the priest.

Father Clifford Bayra, social action director of Cotabato Archdiocese, said it is important for Christians in the region to welcome the new political entity.

"We aim to see what kind of positive participation can be made to the ongoing process of governance that we have built from the past," said the priest.

"I think we have to go back to where we were before the Spaniards came, that we had some harmony with the different tribes," said Father Rogelio del Rosario of Lanao del Sur province.

He said the people of Mindanao "have to go back to recover that relationship" before the colonizers came.

Edgardo Ramirez, deputy governor for Christian affairs in the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said two seats have been allocated in the regional parliament for Christians.

"It's already a signal that there is an opportunity for Christians to participate in governance," he said.

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