Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato says fighting poverty is key to tackling violent extremism in the Philippines. (Photo by Maria Tan)
Stopping violent extremism in the Philippines should begin by fighting social injustice, particularly in the south, war-torn Mindanao's lone cardinal says.
Rather than military intervention alone, addressing social injustices, real or perceived, is key to combating terrorism, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato said.
"The government has to address the economic and political roots of terrorism," Cardinal Quevedo said, in prepared answers to media questions.
Mindanao is the Philippines' most resource-rich island but it has consistently been home to some of the poorest provinces, with Lanao del Sur, where the besieged city of Marawi is located, leading the way.
According to official statistics, poverty in the province worsened over the last decade.
From just 44 percent in 2006, the data showed that the poverty rate in the province — which has a population of 1 million — rose dramatically to 74.3 percent in 2015.
Mindanao's problems are complex. Decades of government neglect, inequality, and political exclusion have spurred numerous rebel groups into waging an insurgency for greater autonomy for more than four decades.
To date, 11 out of the 20 poorest provinces in the country are in Mindanao, which has about 21 million people.
The region is also considered the "food basket" of the Philippines. Ironically, however, it has the highest incidence of hunger and reported cases of malnutrition in the nation.
Across all regions, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) also had the lowest literacy rate of 72.1 percent as of 2015.
"These issues demand long-term engagement," Cardinal Quevedo said.
The cardinal said terrorism is not simply a threat, adding that it has been actual for many years in certain parts of Mindanao.
"But ideological terrorism, ISIS style, is a new vintage," he said, referring to the Maute terrorist group that stormed Marawi in May killing Christians and burning churches.
More than 300,000 have fled their home since the fighting began.
He added that the roots of terrorism also include biases and prejudices between Muslims and Christians, and called for more interreligious dialogue to help end all forms of fundamentalism.
The cardinal said interreligious dialogue is essential amid the ongoing fighting in Mindanao.
"With the tragic reality of terrorism, interreligious dialogue has become more imperative and indispensable," Cardinal Quevedo said.
He added that it is the task of religious leaders to address the root causes of terrorism, including "deep-seated" mutual biases and prejudices that often erupt when social disputes and violence occur.
A way of correcting "erroneous beliefs" and eradicating or at least reducing prejudices can be achieved through informal and formal education and even in ordinary day-to-day dialogue of life.
"Religious leaders, educational institutions and churches have to effectively address the deep-seated biases, prejudices and erroneous religious beliefs beginning with the young," he also said.
He said religious leaders should act on "false beliefs of their respective constituents about others."
The prelate noted that an interreligious dialogue movement, consisting of Catholic bishops, Protestant-leaders, and Muslim Ulama, exists in Mindanao.
"It meets quarterly to discuss social concerns of mutual interest and sometimes conducts a dialogue of theological exchange," he said.
He added that the body initiated "a Mindanao Week of Peace that is celebrated all over Mindanao during the season of Advent."
He said other dioceses in the region have replicated the conference "and now hold similar group discussions," involving church leaders "including laypeople of different religious traditions."
The cardinal further explained that it is also the task of the leaders to engage people in values formation that "have to start from early childhood."