Catholic-Muslim Group Aiding Philippine Peace

Catholic-Muslim Group Aiding Philippine Peace

After 40-Year Conflict in Mindanao Escalates

By Inmaculada Álvarez

MANILA, Philippines, AUG. 22, 2008 ( A panel of bishops and prominent Muslims are appealing to both the Philippine government and the leaders of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front to cease hostilities in the resource-rich Mindanao region.

The 12,000-strong separatist Islamic group has been fighting for greater autonomy in the region for some four decades. This month, the conflict escalated after the Supreme Court temporarily halted the signing of a breakthrough peace agreement with the group. On Thursday, the government said they would not sign the deal and more people were killed over night.

According to Amnesty International, civilians in the region are forming militia groups, and since the Supreme Court ruling, units from the MILF have occupied farms and homes and displaced another 150,000 people. Meanwhile, the government has asked for the arrest of several of the group's commanders.

In the midst of this, an appeal Wednesday signed by Archbishop Fernando Capalla of Davao and Hamid Barra, a representative of the League of the Ulemas of the Philippines, urged peace.

They appealed to both sides to seek an immediate truce, including pulling back troops, handing over hostages, and restoring order in the region of the southern Philippines.

The Catholic and Muslim leaders also called for urgent assistance to those displaced by the conflict, "with special attention to the poor, the sick, babies and young children." They also asked media to avoid publishing information that might be interpreted by combatants as a provocation.

In another joint communiqué, published Thursday by the news service of the Philippine episcopal conference, the Catholic and Muslim representatives of Mindanao condemned the violence in the Northern Lanao area, and the "unnecessary loss of human lives and properties."

"The incidents of armed conflict and violence in Northern Lanao have saddened us profoundly as religious leaders of Christian and Muslim communities," they wrote.

The religious leaders condemned the acts of violence and expressed their "profound sympathy" with the victims, while calling for justice "for those responsible for these crimes."

"At this time in which too many feelings of anger, fear, hatred and confusion are mixed, we appeal to our Muslim and Christian communities to remain calm and faithful to their call as creatures of the almighty and merciful God," added the statement.

The bishops and ulemas of Mindanao promised to do everything possible to "promote peace" in their respective local communities.


Meanwhile Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, president of the episcopal conference's Commission for Interreligious Dialogue, told L'Osservatore Romano that the role of the Catholic-Muslim panel is key in the pursuit of peace.

He noted that in recent days, the Philippine media has even speculated on the possible mediation of the panel in the conflict.

Without confirming that possibility, Archbishop Ledesma said that the group, though not political, "will do everything possible, within its realm, to arrive as soon as possible at an agreement that ensures a lasting peace in the country."

"What the conference can do is to contribute to the establishment between the two sides of a climate of mutual trust," helping to "focus better on the topics of coexistence and dialogue between Christians and Muslims," he affirmed.

He also cautioned against using the pretext of peace to provoke a separation between the Christian and Muslim populations, in an area where both have coexisted peacefully.

"The members of the conference of bishops and ulemas have been engaging for a long time in programs of interreligious dialogue and social service both for Christians as well as Muslims," Archbishop Ledesma said. "As so many religious and lay volunteers of both creeds are already doing, [both sides] must live and work together in mutual respect of their beliefs, traditions and peculiarities."

According to the 65-year-old prelate, the members of the Catholic-Muslim panel "not only have moral qualities and a solid knowledge of the reciprocal religious spheres," but are the ones "who know best the real needs of their faithful."

The prelate added that the Catholic Church of the Philippines "has always gone to the aid of the poor without distinction of creeds."

"In this charitable action," he added, "[the Church] has always been helped in Mindanao by a number -- at first small but ever more numerous -- of Muslim religious leaders and lay volunteers, who are conscious of the role of religions in society."

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