Moro students in Sarangani province attend a peace forum. (Photo by Bong S. Sarmiento)
A province on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao has teamed up with madaris or Islamic schools to prevent violent extremism making inroads among Filipino Muslim youth.
Sarangani Governor Steve Solon said the provincial government's "Madaris for Peace" program will see 125 Asatidz (Madrasah teachers) propagate peace and Islamic values among Muslim school children.
Solon said local government and faith leaders decided to work together following the outbreak of conflict more than 300 km away in Marawi, the country's only Muslim majority city.
The result of the partnership is an "enhanced curriculum" in dozens of Arabic schools to combat the spread of extremism among youth. Muslims make up a tenth of Sarangani's population.
"Let us act together in preventing the spread of violent radicalism in our province," the governor said in a message read out in over 250 mosques in the province.
"We share the same goal which is to live peacefully and happily, thus we ask your continuous engagement in our undertakings that will strengthen peace in our communities," he said.
Ustadz Abdulbayan Laguialam, Madaris for Peace project manager, said the program started classes using a modified curriculum last month and will run for 10 months, benefiting at least 3,500 kindergarten to high school students.
Madaris offer Arabic literacy and Islamic values education for young Muslims on Saturdays and Sundays.
Laguialam said Madrasah teachers and Muslim community leaders were oriented on anti-radicalism a few months ago.
Last year, local authorities discovered the presence of Ansar Al-Khilafah, a group that has pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State group, in Sarangani. The group's leader was killed in January but its followers reportedly continue to operate in the province.
Sarangani is strategic to the government's campaign to block further inroads by militants. The province lies at the southernmost tip of Mindanao. Its 230-km coastline extends to the Celebes Sea, a favorite transit route of militants from the vulnerable frontier provinces of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
According to a 2015 census, over half a million people live in Sarangani. Sixty percent are Catholics under Marbel Diocese, which is headed by Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez.
Governor Solon has sought the help of Bishop Gutierrez and priests in the diocese to assist the provincial government in its campaign against terrorism in the area.
The bishop pledged the diocese's support to fight terrorism in Sarangani as he condemned the destruction of Marawi and for the loss of lives.
The conflict in Marawi, which prompted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to place the whole of Mindanao under martial law, has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.