Four months after the battle ended over the southern Philippines city of Marawi, Muslim leaders have called on people to stop posting divisive information on social media.
Rumours were spread via social media in recent weeks, saying that the Catholic cathedral, which was severely damaged during the conflict last year, would be rebuilt first.
But Bishop Edwin de la Pena of Marawi, a city with a Muslim majority, has said the focus of rebuilding should be on the recovery of communities first, and not the church building. The Catholic Church has rolled out an interfaith programme in which Muslim and Christians volunteer to come alongside those most affected by the violence.
Fighting in Marawi broke out in May last year after the Islamic State-inspired Maute group tried to take over the city to create an Islamic state. The conflict lasted five months, killing 1,100 people – mostly militants – and causing more than 400,000 to flee their homes, while destroying 40% of the city.
According to Catholic news agency UCAN, a local Muslim civil-rights activist, Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, encouraged her compatriots to sow unity between Muslims and Christians, not division.
A local pastor, who helps out in shelters where 350,000 residents still remain months after their houses were destroyed, told World Watch Monitor another rumour going round suggested the local mayor had said Christians were only engaging in relief work to “Christianise the Maranaos”.
The pastor, who did not wish to be named, said he doubted the mayor was behind the rumour, but that he believed others felt that way. “This means the work is being stopped; someone really wants to get rid of the Christians in Marawi,” he said.
But Gutoc-Tomawis, who is also a former member of parliament in the autonomous Muslim region of Mindanao, highlighted stories of Muslim residents taking care of Christians during the siege and thanked Christians “for not abandoning us even during recent storms that hit Mindanao”.
World Watch Monitor reported how when Christians were targeted by the militants, Muslims helped their fellow residents by reportedly giving them Muslim headscarves, hiding them in their homes and teaching them Muslim prayers.
And as the army slowly took control of the city, Christian police and soldiers helped clean the site of the Grand Mosquein the city centre and then secured its surroundings during the first prayer held there since the start of the conflict.
According to the government it will cost about US$ 1 billion to rebuild Marawi, with rebuilding expected to begin in April, according to UCAN.
Thomas Muller, analyst at Christian charity Open Doors’ World Watch Research unit, told World Watch Monitor following the siege that the future of Islamic extremism in the area “may much depend on how, and how fast, Marawi can be rebuilt and its citizens can return”.
“The killing of militant leaders does not destroy the fighters behind them. Other leaders will emerge and the Islamic militants will simply re-group,” he said.
A senior officer of the Philippine Armed Forces warned earlier this week that the militants were preparing for another attempt to establish a Southeast Asian “caliphate” in the region. “The guerrillas who escaped during the first days of the military operation … to reconquer Marawi, are engaged in recruiting new soldiers, thanks to the large amounts of money, guns and jewels stolen from the city’s banks and private homes,” Colonel Romeo Brawner said, according to AsiaNews.
“Fighting against widespread poverty and Muslim armed uprisings seeking independence or self-government, Mindanao must improve the poor supervision of Islamic schools or madrasas, where many young armed men are recruited,” he added.
Mindanao is home to a number of violent extremist groups – including Maute, Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters – which for the last four decades have sought the island’s independence, hoping to create an independent Islamic state.
While the government in July last year was presented with a draft bill that would govern the creation of a new autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a peace deal with the government in 2014, warned that the failure to pass the law on self-determination would “fuel Islamic extremism”.
The group’s vice chairman, Ghazali Jaafar, said the Marawi siege happened as a result of frustration with the peace process.
IS has been making inroads in the Philippines since the Abu Sayyaf group declared allegiance in 2015, and since then IS has “recognised” a number of other Islamist groups in the Philippines.
As IS has lost territory in Iraq and Syria, it has started to assert its presence elsewhere through either isolated “lone-wolf” attacks or more co-ordinated actions by organisations that affiliate themselves with the group. In a 20-minute video issued last year, the group actively encouraged supporters to “go to the Philippines”.