Christians in the Philippines are concerned at a rise in Islamic extremism in the country. A local church leader, who wished to remain anonymous, told World Watch Monitor about a recent meeting of around 3,000 Islamists on one island – the name of which he wouldn’t say, for fear of repercussions for the locals.

“The villagers – Christian or not – are all in fear. At night, the Islamists coerce men into going to the mosques. Some men have never been seen again,” the pastor said. “When they see you out on the street, they’ll come get you. One man who went to the mosque on 6 February never came back home.”

The Islamic State has been making inroads in the Philippines since jihadist group Abu Sayyaf declared allegiance in 2015. A video of an IS training camp in a Filipino jungle later surfaced online.

Today (27 Feb.), Abu Sayyaf posted a video showing the beheading of a German hostage, after the deadline for the paying of a ransom expired.

President Rodrigo Duterte made it clear that he’s determined to crack down on IS’s presence in the country, but he’s also admitted to having relatives who might have pledged allegiance to the group.

“The other week I learned that a Seventh Day Adventist church constructing their building was threatened by the Islamists,” the pastor said. “Forty [Islamists] went to the church one night and threatened the people that if they don’t stop construction, they’ll burn the church down and force them to leave the area.

“Because of this, Christians in that island and in nearby islands are all on alert. They take extra caution when they worship. They don’t want to attract too much attention because they’re already being watched and questioned. Their house-churches aren’t as grand as the Seventh Day Adventist church, so they’re less noticeable.”

In December last year, a bomb explosion outside a Catholic church in the southern Philippines led to suggestions church services could be cancelled.

A day later, a bomb was found near the US embassy in the capital, Manila, and detonated safely, prompting police to erect checkpoints around Manila to prevent further attacks.

In August last year, a missionary priest involved in interfaith dialogue in the southern province of Mindanao told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that Christians were “living in fear, terrified to speak out” and leaving the region because of the more violent form of Islam that was spreading there. Fr. Sebastiano D’Ambra added that behind the current complex situation there are hidden geopolitical and military interests.

Mindanao is home to a violent Islamist movement called the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which has been seeking independence for decades, hoping to create an independent Islamic state. A ceasefire was agreed in 1996, but some of the group’s affiliates remain active.

After an attack in September 2013, during which a pastor was among those taken hostage, the national security commander for the group, Asamin Hussin, told AP: “We want to establish our own Bangsamoro [Muslim] government, not an autonomous government but we want an independent Mindanao as a Bangsamoro nation.”

Meanwhile, on 24 December 2015, another insurgent group, BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters), killed nine Christian farmers in Mindanao.

The Philippines is on a list of “countries of concern” for Open Doors, a global organisation which keeps track of the places where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.

Although the Philippines is 90% Christian, Open Doors reports that converts from Islam are becoming increasingly vulnerable.

“Several reports last year showed that they have to keep their Christian faith carefully hidden from their families and that meeting with other Christians is very difficult, dangerous and at times impossible,” Open Doors noted.

“Weapons used to kill four people in an attack in Jakarta on 14 January 2016 were reportedly brought into Indonesia from the southern Philippines; this shows the worrying connections of Islamic militants across borders in Southeast Asia. Islamic State announced plans to create a province of their caliphate in the southern Philippines, and BIFF and some other groups have already pledged allegiance to IS.”