Religious violence was not the only reason for last year’s conflict that displaced 98% of Marawi’s population, a study finds.

A study by International Alert shows that the armed conflict in the southern Philippines city of Marawi last year was not only about religion.

Findings of the study, released by the independent peacebuilding group in the capital Manila on Tuesday (2 October), said that the war was not the result of a religious conflict.

“Evidence shows that membership in extremist groups was prompted by pre-existing clan feuds,” said Nikki de la Rosa, International Alert country manager for the Philippines, adding that extremist groups “instrumentalized existing identity-based conflicts to forge alliances that strengthened their base and widened their reach.”

Islamist groups have been engaged in an insurgency for an independent province in the southern region of Mindanao for decades.

‘Life was peaceful and prosperous’

On 23 May 2017, one of these groups launched an attack on Marawi, in Mindanao.

Fighting between government forces and the militants of the IS-affiliated Maute Group resulted in the destruction of 40 per cent of the city while 98 per cent of the population were forcibly displaced. Militants entered homes and set buildings on fire, including a cathedral and a Protestant-run college.

They also took over a dozen Christians hostage, including a Catholic priest, as Christians were a particular target for the extremists, according to Christian charity Open Doors International.

The Catholic Bishops in the Philippines however said in July last year that the crisis in Marawi was “not a conflict of religion”.

“We heard and read truly amazing stories of how the Muslims protected us and helped Christians avoid an almost certain death. Now Christians are helping thousands of Muslims who have fled from Marawi. These are indisputable signs that there is no religious war,” they said in a statement.

In 1980 Marawi proclaimed itself an “Islamic City” and it is the only city in the country with that designation. Catholics account for around 1 per cent of its 180,000 population, but life in the city was until recently peaceful and prosperous, as Muslims and Christians lived together in harmony, according to Edwin de la Peña, bishop of Marawi.

Meanwhile the new Bangsamoro Organic Law, signed by President Rodrigo Duterte in July this year, is to facilitate the creation of an autonomous Muslim region and is seen as key to ending almost 50 years of conflict in Mindanao.