Church leaders in the southern Philippines have warned against whipping up fear by spreading unfounded rumors of an alleged terror plot ahead of this month's plebiscite on the creation of an autonomous Muslim region. Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato appealed for calm on Jan. 8 after rumors spread on social media about armed men supposedly planning to attack the city. An air of uncertainty and fear still lingers in the city following a New Year's Eve bomb explosion
outside a shopping center that killed two people and wounded more than 30 others. "Do not allow fear to reign over us. Let us be calm," said Cardinal Quevedo in an address broadcast on a Catholic radio station to the region. The prelate called on those who received unverified information to immediately report it to authorities instead of posting it on social media. Father Eliseo Mercado Jr., an Oblate missionary priest who once acted as peace negotiator with Moro rebels, also appealed for sobriety ahead of the plebiscite. "Whether we are for or against inclusion [in the Muslim region], we must not forget that we are all united and stakeholders in the peace and development of Mindanao," said the priest. Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi of Cotabato assured that the authorities were "doing their best to protect the city." "Do not let fear overwhelm us because the law is on our side," she said. The Commission on Elections announced on Jan. 7 that the plebiscite for the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law
would take place on Jan. 21 in areas under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao
, including the cities of Isabela in Basilan province and Cotabato. Those residing in the province of Lanao del Norte except Iligan City and six North Cotabato towns will vote on Feb. 6. At least 2.8 million voters are expected to cast their votes in the plebiscite. The new autonomous region, if accepted, will replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. A Bangsamoro parliament, whose members will be elected by the region's residents, will govern the new Muslim region.