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Philippines vote on giving Muslim majority area more power

What does the creation of a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in the Philippines mean for Christians living in this Muslim majority areas of Mindanao?

Three million people have voted in a referendum in the Muslim majority Mindanao region of the Philippines over whether it should become a self-administered area known as Bangsamoro. The result are expected at the end of the week. It is believed that the outcome will be in favour of creating Bangsamoro.

Christian communities are divided on the issue. The final draft of the bill contained a provision allowing for religious freedom in the majority-Muslim territory. Despite this many local Christians are worried that the implementation of Bangsamoro could lead to further persecution, especially around the implementation of Sharia law.

One local church worker said that while Christians, a minority in Mindanao, understand the desire of their Muslim neighbours for independence, they remain apprehensive about the potential knock-on effects.

Mindanao has seen a huge amount of violence in recent years - mainly between the army, Muslim separatists and other rebels. The creation of an autonomous Muslim region is seen as key to ending almost 50 years of conflict in Mindanao which has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced two million. In 2017, the Islamic State-affiliated Maute group, held the southern city of Marawi under siege for five months.

Thomas Muller, Asia analyst for Open Doors International, said the bill may “help prevent young frustrated Muslims from joining militant groups”.

Hadassah*, a church worker in Mindanao, said, “I am in favour of the Bangsamoro because historically, the Muslims have had Mindanao first. Prior to Christianity, prior to Catholicism, they had this land.”

But he said not everyone shared his view: “We hear from local Christians that there’s fear. They are threatened because of the response of Muslims who don’t know what the law stands for. One worker shared that some Muslims in the mountains already said they wanted to come down to seize their land.

“It depends on who holds and implements it and how they would interpret this law for the people of Mindanao. So if those who would implement it has a clear understanding of it, and his approaches are moderate, then there would be a good outcome. But if it would be extreme, then persecution of the church can increase – the church would be all the more a target, since they would want Christians, especially those in the ARMM region [Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao] to leave.”

The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country but in certain parts of the southern island of Mindanao, Muslims dominate and rule the regions. Islamic teachers put strong pressure on Christians in Mindanao, especially on converts. As leaving Islam dishonours the family name, converts to Islam are often harshly persecuted. Islamic radical groups like Abu Sayyaf or the so-called Maute Group rose to (renewed) prominence in 2017 and put Christians in regions like Marawi under pressure.

The Philippines is a ‘country of concern’ and sits just outside Open Doors’ World Watch List. Persecution has risen dramatically in Asia as Islamic extremism has become more prominent in the region.

*Name changed for security reasons 

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