Evacuation centre in Marawi, S. Philippines, June 2017. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Evacuation centre in Marawi, June 2017. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

A programme launched by the Catholic Church, aimed at rebuilding the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines after months of fighting between Islamist groups and the military, has received support from the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

According to AsiaNews, the rebel group is to provide security for the Church’s programme as it tries to reach out to thousands of people who have been displaced by the violence, including 13 coastal communities that have been severely affected by the fighting.

Marawi’s Archbishop Edwin the la Peňa met the leader of the Front, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, at a meeting hosted by the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome where Ebrahim promised to help the Church in its efforts to bring reconstruction, healing and peace to the city.

The archbishop also encouraged other Christian communities to get involved: “It is a critical moment in the history of Muslim and Christian relations in Marawi… This will either bring us closer or will widen the gap,” he said.

A Catholic priest and 13 other Christians were taken hostage by the Islamist Maute group, which laid siege to the city on 23 May, setting fire to buildings including a cathedral and Protestant-run college, and erecting the back flags of the Islamic State group.

Two of the hostages, the priest Fr. Teresito “Chito” Suganob and a teacher from the college, managed to escape on 16 September as the rebels were pushed back from the city by the military.

IS in the Philippines

Although the Philippines is a majority-Christian country, the southern island of Mindanao has a strong Muslim presence and 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.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front initially took part in terrorism activities but later started peace talks with the government and in the last few months has been trying to assist in efforts to rescue civilians from the fighting in Marawi.

In July the group appealed to Filipinos to support the passage of the revised draft law that will govern the creation of a new autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines.

Recent reports suggest IS has targeted the southern Philippines as it seeks a potential foothold in Asia.