Muslims and Christians in the southern Philippines cast their votes on Jan. 21 on whether to approve a law that will expand the current Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao. The creation of a new political entity in the predominantly Muslim region is part of a peace deal entered into by the Philippine government with Moro rebels in 2014. The Commission on Elections announced that about 2.5 million out of 2.8 million registered voters in the region were expected to head to polling stations. If ratified, the Bangsamoro Organic Law will pave the way for the replacement of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao with an expanded entity. Both Muslim and Christian leaders are confident of a “yes” vote. "Many people now understand that the only way forward is to take the path to peace," said Drieza Lininding, chairman of the Moro Consensus Group. Father Ramonito Torres, vicar-general of the Prelature of St. Mary in the city of Marawi, said ratification will be the basis “for inter-religious dialogue among the peoples of Mindanao." "If we give peace a chance, [the Bangsamoro Organic Law] has to be given a chance," said the priest. Usman Sarangani, one of the reigning sultans of Mindanao, said traditional leadership
would play an important role in the new Muslim region. He said traditional leaders like himself are "indispensable in running the affairs" of the Bangsamoro government, especially when it comes to peace and order. Under the new law, sultans and datus
(rulers of indigenous groups) will act as advisers to the chief minister because they are "effective in conflict resolution." In Manila, interfaith groups stepped up what they described were "solidarity actions" for people in Mindanao. On the eve of the vote, advocates and students at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University celebrated Mass to show support for the peace process. Jesuit priest, Vic de Jesus, said the end of decades of armed conflict in the southern Philippines "is a victory for many who have worked to enable a process for justice and peace to prevail." He said the work of Christians
in the peace process was "more than just for the cessation of hostilities but for historical injustices to be addressed and reconciliation to be made possible."
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An estimated 120,000 people have been killed during the decades-long conflict in Mindanao. Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte
said a vote for ratification of the law would serve as a "testament" to the people's determination "to bring genuine peace and development." Once ratified, the Bangsamoro Organic Law will come into effect five years after the government signed a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Under the law, the national government will retain police and military forces in the area while the rebels are expected to lay down their weapons in phases. Jigger Jerusalem and Becky Lozada contributed to this report.