Philippines (MNN) — Mindanao resounds with the sounds of war.
Philippine military officials are coming back with fists swinging after the Abu Sayyaf extremist group killed 18 soldiers over the weekend–the government’s largest single-day combat loss so far this year.
The government killed five militants, plus another, says Todd Nettleton, spokesman for the Voice of the Martyrs USA. “One of those was a Moroccan bomb-making instructor, which is obviously a concern–not a native Filipino, but somebody who had come from outside to apparently instruct them in bomb-making.”
Abu Sayyaf has ties to al-Qaeda. The United States and the Philippines have separately blacklisted the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization for deadly bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings. With the Moroccan bomb-maker’s presence, Nettleton wonders what this means between Abu Sayyaf and ISIS. “Is that now stretching out across the world to the Philippines? Will it transfer to Northern Nigeria and Boko Haram? Will it transfer to Somalia and al-Shabaab?”
It’s a sobering thought. “The thought of a truly interconnected terrorism operation led by the Islamic State that incorporates all of these different groups and exchanges material, exchanges men, weapons, and technology: that’s really a frightening thing.”
As it is, Abu Sayyaf is a thorn in the government’s side. The group has taken credit for a spike in kidnappings for ransom over the last couple of months. Abu Sayyaf freed a former Italian missionary just last week, after six months of captivity on Jolo Island. It bore a striking resemblance to a high-profile kidnapping in 2001 of two American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, of New Tribes Mission. They were taken hostage by the terror group and held for more than a year before a rescue attempt resulted in Martin’s death and Gracia’s release.
If there is an Abu Sayyaf/ISIS connection, what changes for Christians in this region? Many in the south are already isolated, living in impoverished conditions and facing continual risk of persecution by Muslim rebel groups. Pastors and Christian leaders are targeted for their evangelistic activities. Nettleton says they’re aware of the risks. “There are threats against what they’re doing. They also understand the call of the Gospel and the call of Christ is to go out and make disciples, to go out and share with unbelievers the truth of the Gospel.”
Even though the leaders expect threats, that’s not to say they don’t get discouraged. VOM helps front-line workers by supporting theological training schools as well as pastoral conferences on overcoming persecution.
The region remains a particularly dangerous place to live as a convert to Christianity because conversion is seen as treason. Still, the Gospel is getting out, says Nettleton. “It’s not outreach in the sense of a big event or a big crowd. It’s outreach in the sense of one-by-one, building relationships. [It’s] having the opportunity through those relationships to share the love of Christ with them.”
The #1 way that we can help is to pray, confirms Nettleton. “The front-lines of providing help is for us to lift them up in prayer. We know that God can go where we can’t go; He can provide encouragement to people we don’t even know.” Pray for God’s hand of protection over the people of Mindanao. Pray especially for converts from Islam. As new believers learn to live as followers of Christ, pour into their lives grace upon grace through the preaching of God’s Word.