Armoured personnel carriers at a checkpoint in Mindanao on 8 March, 2018, after the military reported killing eight Islamic militants attempting to set up base in the southern region of the country.

The autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines has named its first deputy governor for Christians.

The governor, Mujiv Hataman, said the appointment of Edgardo Ramirez, a known human rights activist and radio broadcaster, would ensure the voices of Christians – a minority in the region – are heard.

After taking office on 1 March, Ramirez said he would work towards interfaith understanding between Muslims and Christians in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, reported Catholic news agency UCAN.

Thomas Muller, analyst at Christian charity Open Doors International’s World Watch Research unit, told World Watch Monitor the initiative to create a special deputy office for Christians illustrated “goodwill from the Muslim governor”. He also said it might help to address Christians’ concerns about the proposed creation of another autonomous Muslim region.

Ghazali Jaafar, vice chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, said last year that the proposed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region was “the best antidote to violent extremism”.

But the long-awaited proposal has been held up in the Constitutional Court, and Muller warned the delay “could lead radical groups to set up new attacks”.

Ramirez’s appointment comes five months after the city of Marawi, part of Mindanao, was liberated after a five-month siege from an Islamist group pledging allegiance to IS. The conflict claimed 1,100 lives – mostly militants – while more than 400,000 people were forced to flee their homes, and as much as 40% of the city was destroyed. Muller told World Watch Monitor at the time that although Marawi had been liberated, the root cause of extremism remained.

New threats

Meanwhile the Catholic Church has told Christians to be “vigilant” during the approaching Holy Week, a week-long holiday in the predominantly Catholic country, when thousands of Filipinos will attend church services and other gatherings.

The warning comes amidst reports of militants preparing for another attempt to establish a Southeast Asian “caliphate”. IS recently appointed a new regional leader, replacing Isnilon Hapilon, who was killed during the Marawi siege. A military spokesman said the group is “organising, recruiting and retraining … and we cannot discount the possibility of an attack”, as UCAN reported.

Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, warned during the Marawi siege that “Indonesia and Malaysia will face new threats in the form of returning fighters from Mindanao, and the Philippines will have a host of smaller dispersed cells with the capacity for both violence and indoctrination”.

Then in a commentary after the battle was over, she wrote: “The sobering conclusion is that even with the decline of the ISIS ‘brand’, the narratives used to recruit violent extremists remain powerful, particularly among educated, urban Muslim youth… A new movement could easily emerge focusing on the need for a pure Islamic state, with or without a link to ISIS.”

For more than four decades, Islamist groups have been engaged in an insurgency for an independent province in the Mindanao island group in the south of the country.

IS has ‘recognised’ a number of existing Islamist terrorist groups in the Philippines, though it has stopped short of announcing a wilayet – or province – there, as it has done in other countries.

In 2016, the group issued a 20-minute video encouraging viewers who could not travel to the Middle East to “go to the Philippines”.