Philippines (CAM/MNN) – There’s a crisis in the region of the Philippines known to host training camps for militant Islamists.
Did you hear about it? No? You’re probably not alone, says Steve VanValkenberg is the Southeast Asian Director at Christian Aid Mission, your link to indigenous missions. “The focus is on Syria, the Middle East, and Iran. People just don’t think about what’s happening in the Philippines, so it has not gotten attention. But, it is a major situation for the Christians, what’s happening with the radical Muslims.”
Clashes between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Zamboanga have displaced at least 80,000 people according to government statistics.
About half of those who fled sought temporary shelter in the city’s open-air sports stadium having left their belongings behind them when they fled. The area is under a dusk to dawn curfew (8 pm to 5 am) in order to try to quell the violence.
Regardless of what is going on with the ‘official’ numbers, the reality is there is no respite for the refugees.
Several Christian Aid-assisted ministries in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao
are feeling the effects of 11 days of clashes between government troops and the Muslim-led Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). VanValkenberg explains, “It paralyzed everything in the area because everybody’s intimidated and afraid of what’s going to happen. They may get in trouble, so everybody’s trying to lay low so it’s closed down a large area of the city.”
Fighting is centered in Zamboanga City, where the rebel group stormed five coastal communities September 9 and took about 200 people hostage. Those seized by the guerrillas were both Muslims and Christians. Thus far, all but 20 of the hostages have been released or escaped, including a pastor.
According to the government of the Philippines, as many as 112,000 people have been displaced in the conflict, and more than 10,000 homes and a hospital have been destroyed. Many who fled the siege are staying in the city’s sports stadium or other emergency shelters.
Filipino authorities reported more than 100 casualties, most of whom were rebel fighters. Seven civilians also lost their lives. All schools and the majority of businesses remained closed through most of the week as a precaution to prevent further hostage situations and injuries to residents caught in the crossfire. “The curfew has affected things, but I think more, people are just afraid of doing things. A lot of ministry activity has been stopped. Also, it’s hard for people to travel, so a lot of ministries just have to stay home and not venture out very far because they don’t want to get involved in any kind of potential problems.”
Christian Aid ministry contacts in Mindanao report no incidents directly involving their workers, although travel into and within Zamboanga City has been seriously hampered. VanValkenberg notes that, “Stores are closed for the most part. They can’t get food in any way. It’s not a good situation for people in that whole area.” The situation is worsening as farmers cannot get their produce into the city to sell.
“They [farmers] are not safe going into the city because they will pass places where the majority of the people are Muslims. We are contacting them and telling them that as of now it is not safe for them to go to the city while the trouble is going on. The pastors are visiting them and having prayers with each family,” said one ministry leader.
Rebels also attacked the nearby island of Basilan. Military airstrikes successfully foiled attempts by insurgents to take over Lamitan City.
Last Friday a stray bullet struck the exterior of the building where a ministry partner in Basilan holds its kindergarten class. Fortunately no children or teachers were present since classes had already been canceled for the week.
The ministry established the kindergarten and an orphanage for children from the Muslim Yakan tribe. Through Christian Aid’s child sponsorship program, impoverished or orphaned Yakan children receive food, education, and Christian nurturing.
Mindanao, the southernmost of the three largest island groups in the Philippines, has a significant Muslim presence. Arab traders brought Islam to the region about 200 years before the introduction of Catholicism by the Spaniards in the late 1500s.
Fueled by religious differences and poverty, separatists have sought to create an autonomous Muslim state for four decades. The sporadic but ongoing violence in Mindanao has claimed the lives of 120,000 people and left two million displaced.
One ministry partner attributes this latest eruption of violence at least in part to the MNLF’s frustration as they become overshadowed by a rival rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF signed a peace agreement with the Filipino government last October and is said to be in talks with the government for a new Muslim autonomy deal.
Those negotiations might diminish MNLF’s bargaining power and adversely affect a separate peace deal made between MNLF leader Nur Misuari and the government in 1996-a deal which both sides were accused of reneging.
“Most of the ministries in the south believe that the actions taken by the MNLF are a rebellious act against the government because Nur Misuari felt excluded in the Bansangmoro agreement,” explained the Christian Aid ministry partner, whose all-Filipino organization trains missionaries to share the gospel among over 20 animist and Muslim tribal groups.
“All of the missionaries who are working with these people groups have been cautious. And I think God has given us wisdom and strategies on how to deal with the situation and how to approach the ministry so that the people would accept us, love us, and support our presence among them,” he added.
While skirmishes are commonplace in parts of Mindanao, Zamboanga City is normally a haven for its largely Christian population. The spreading violence raises concern about safety in other peaceful areas as the rebels crisscross the countryside and recruit young men for their training camps.
Whatever the outcome, VanValkenberg explains that the ministry is committed to strengthening local churches by discipling believers and developing leaders who can stand strong in the face of opposition. “We help probably, a dozen ministries that are specifically involved with reaching Muslims and planting churches. they have various kinds of strategies, but that’s been the emphasis at Christian Aid for at least a dozen years-trying to specifically help ministries in that area that are involved in reaching Muslims with the Gospel.”
He asks Christians to join together in praying for God’s intervention in Mindanao and for gospel workers to courageously preach the truth in all circumstances. “I think that we really need to get behind and pray for those ministries that are in that part of Mindanao. The Muslims are really open, actually, to the Gospel. They have a lot of fruit there.”