Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has called on all communities in the southern Mindanao region to support the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) that is to facilitate the creation of an autonomous Muslim region.
During a ceremony on Monday, 6 August, he urged the local population “to actively participate in constructive discussions about the law”, which will create a new region named Bangsamoro after its ethnic Muslim, or “Moro”, people.
The BOL, signed by Duterte on 26 July, replaces an earlier version called the Bangsamoro Basic Law and is seen as key to ending almost 50 years of conflict in the region which, according to Catholic news site UCAN, “has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced about two million others”.
It still needs to be approved by the local population, which includes indigenous communities and Christian settlers, in a referendum held later this year.
And one local church worker told World Watch Monitor that while Christians, a minority in Mindanao, understand the desire of their Muslim neighbours for independence, they remain apprehensive about the potential knock-on effects.
“I am in favour of the BOL because, historically, the Muslims have had Mindanao first,” the church worker, who did not wish to be named, said. “Prior to Christianity, prior to Catholicism, they had this land. The wounds have been too deep; this is why there is chaos. Maybe the approval can bring healing to them. It depends on their response.
“But when it was approved, I had mixed feelings. Of course, you don’t know what will happen. What its effect will be, what the outcome will be, and how the proponents or those in the leadership will implement this.
“If those who would implement the BOL has a clear understanding of it, and his approaches are moderate, then there would be a good outcome. But if it would be extreme, then persecution of the Church can increase – the Church would be all the more a target, since they would want Christians, especially those in [what is currently called] the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, to leave.”
‘Seize their land’
The new law reportedly includes a provision allowing for religious freedom in the majority-Muslim territory. And in March, Mindanao’s government appointed a first deputy governor for Christians to ensure their voices would be heard.
Despite this, the church worker said Christians are afraid: “They [Christians] are threatened because of the responses of the Muslims who … don’t know what the BOL stands for. Like one worker whom we met last week, from Cotabato, shared that some Muslims in the mountains already said they wanted to come down to seize their land. This is one of the effects now. Churches, especially in isolated areas, also feel threatened.
“They still don’t know the entirety of the BOL. What they have to know is what’s in the organic law.”
According to Al-Jazeera the new law provides for the demobilisation of fighters from the different rebel groups, as well as “domestic legislation, likely a parliament, and a plethora of distinct administrative systems, including the creation of Islamic law courts”.
Meanwhile Archbishop Martin Jumoad of Ozamiz, a city in northern Mindanao, told UCAN: “Respect of religious traditions must prevail … Peace and harmony will be enjoyed if this new Bangsamoro government is inclusive and does not discriminate others.”
“The dream for peace, justice and progress is at last becoming a reality,” added Aldrin Penamora of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches.
Islamist groups have been engaged in an insurgency for an independent province in the southern Philippines for decades.
Just last year, one such group, the Islamic State-affiliated Maute group, kept the southern city of Marawi under siege for five months.
In response President Duterte, the first Filipino president from Mindanao, vowed to see the legislation – part of a peace deal between government and rebels that was signed in 2014 – through to completion.
At the same time, Ghazali Jaafar, vice chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, said the Marawi siege had happened as a result of frustration with the delay in the peace process and that the proposed bill was “the best antidote to violent extremism”.
While MILF engaged with the government on implementation of the peace deal, more extreme Islamist groups have moved into the area to continue the insurgency, some of which have pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Al-Jazeera notes that the implementation of the law and creation of a new autonomous Muslim region will not be easy, saying there are the tribal-ethnic divisions and rebel factions who “may fear a loss of power and prestige to their rivals under the new regime”.