Updated: June 06, 2017 08:20 AM GMT
Philippine soldiers patrol the streets of Marawi City during clashes with local terrorist gunmen claiming to have links with the so-called Islamic State. (Photo supplied)
The Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP) has called for an "end to martial law" in Mindanao, saying that it is "not the proper response to terrorist attacks in just one city on a vast island."
"The declaration of martial law is an extreme measure, and based on the reports we have received ... is a reaction disproportionate to the situation," read the statement issued by the influential organization of religious leaders on June 6.
The AMRSP is a joint forum of heads of religious congregations, which run most of the country's top universities and institutions.
"Such a drastic and sweeping government response to terrorist activity would only enhance the perception of power and social impact that the terrorist groups aims to achieve locally and internationally," read the association's statement.
The religious leaders said they are "gravely concerned" by the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, saying that they "reject the strategy of a war on terrorists in the manner that the [government] has been waging the war on drugs."
"In a war against [Islamic State] terrorists, as in the current war on drugs, it is the poor who are the greatest victims, often dismissed as 'necessary collateral damage,'" read the group's statement.
Human rights groups reported that close to 12,000 suspected drug users and peddlers have been killed in the Philippine government's campaign against illegal drugs.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across the entire southern Philippine region of Mindanao after terrorist gunmen claiming to have links with the so-called Islamic State tried to occupy the city of Marawi on May 23.
Armed clashes continue as thousands of government security forces use armored vehicles and aircraft to try to remove the gunmen from the city.
More than 200,000 people have been affected by the conflict in the past two weeks, many of whom have sought shelter outside of Marawi.
The Catholic bishops in Mindanao earlier issued a statement supporting martial law, saying that "at present we simply do not have solid and sufficient facts to absolutely reject the declaration of martial law as morally reprehensible."
Oblate Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, who signed the bishops' statement, said church leaders in the southern Philippines "are certainly agreed that martial law must be temporary."
The religious leaders, however, said while they deplore the "violent attacks" of the terrorist group, they also condemn the "equally violent reaction of government troops."
The association also "deplored [the] malicious attempts by individuals, groups or sectors to portray the Marawi conflict as a religious crisis, pitting Muslims against Christians, when the situation is clearly the result of terrorist acts that have no respect for race or religion."
The religious leaders said the Marawi crisis could be resolved without the president proclaiming martial law over the whole of Mindanao.
"After intensive study and discussion ... we reject the imposition of martial law … as a sweeping solution to the crisis," read the AMRSP statement.
"Such an approach only blinds the government to the real socio-economic problems in Mindanao, which even President Duterte acknowledges are among the root causes of the crisis," it added.
The religious group vowed to extend assistance to civilians caught in the crossfire and focus on what it can do in terms of relief assistance and "in fostering a culture of peace and not hatred."