Protesters from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao voice their concern over the draft law that will create a new Muslim region during a rally in front of a Catholic Marian shrine in Manila on July 11. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)
Freedom of religion will be enshrined in a proposed law that will allow the creation of a new autonomous Muslim region in the southern part of the Philippines.
A congressional bicameral committee agreed this week to adopt a provision that will allow freedom of religion in the predominantly Muslim territory.
The Senate version of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law provides "the promotion of religious freedom by the Bangsamoro government," said Senator Joel Villanueva.
The senator said his counterparts in the Lower House of Congress have agreed to adopt the provision that he proposed.
Villanueva, son of tele-evangelist pastor Eduardo Villanueva, said "religion plays a big role in shaping the beliefs, backgrounds and acts of people living in the area."
"This is not to mention the fact that the region is multicultural. We have Islam, Christianity, and dozens of indigenous beliefs in the area," he said.
The legislator said the exercise of freedom of religion in the Muslim region must extend even to "establishments that wish to express a certain faith."
He said the law must guarantee that Bangsamoro people should be protected from harassment or any undue pressure, coercion or violence on account of religion.
"We need to be mindful of the fact that people are harassed or subjected to violence because of their choice of beliefs in certain areas of the country," said Villanueva
Law does not guarantee religious freedom
Religion experts, however, warned that a provision in the proposed law would not guarantee respect for religious freedom.
Maylanie Sani-Boloto, a sociology professor at Mindanao State University, said the problem is not the law "but the people who will implement it."
"If they will not subscribe to the true interpretation of sharia law, then they will not abide to the very provision that they themselves included," said the professor.
She assured that Islamic law has "very high tolerance to the practice of other religious beliefs" including protecting other faiths and places of worship.
"If we really want a true implementation of sharia law that would truly ensure and protect religious freedom, Muslims should abandon their tribal affiliations and tribal identities," said Sani-Boloto.
She said the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law cannot guarantee respect for freedom of religion "as long as we submit to the secular laws of the Philippine state."
"The real implementation of sharia law means separation of the entire Bangsamoro state from the Philippine state," she said.
Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon welcomed the inclusion of the religious freedom clause in the law but said it will not solve the conflict in Mindanao "because Muslims consider territories [under the proposed law] as theirs."
"So they will not respect the provision on freedom of religion," said the prelate, adding that the new Muslim region should not include Christian-dominated provinces.
The Philippine Congress is expected to finalize by July 13 the final draft of the proposed law that will facilitate the creation of a new autonomous Muslim region.
The Bangsamoro Basic Law is one of the provisions of a peace agreement signed in 2014 by the Philippine government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front that aims to end almost 50 years of conflict in Mindanao.
Leonel Abasola and Mark Saludes contributed to this report.