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Ministries Press On as Philippines Standoff Continues

September 19, 2013

Unrest in the streets of Zamboanga City restricted the travel and activities of several area ministries assisted by Christian Aid Mission.

Several Christian Aid-assisted ministries in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao are feeling the effects of 11 days of clashes between government troops and the Muslim-led Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Fighting is centered in Zamboanga City, where the rebel group stormed five coastal communities Sept. 9 and took about 200 people hostage. Those seized by the guerrillas were both Muslims and Christians. Thus far, all but 20 of the hostages have been released or escaped, including a pastor.

As many as 112,000 people have been displaced in the conflict, and more than 850 homes and a hospital have been destroyed. Many who fled the siege are staying in the city´s sports stadium or other emergency shelters.

Filipino authorities reported more than 100 casualties, most of whom were rebel fighters. Seven civilians also lost their lives.

All schools and the majority of businesses remained closed through Wednesday as a precaution to prevent further hostage situations and injuries to residents caught in the crossfire. Curfews were enforced from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. in most barangays (districts).

Our ministry contacts in Mindanao report no incidents directly involving their workers, although travel into and within Zamboanga City has been seriously hampered. With stores closed for over a week, residents are running low on food in their homes. The situation is worsening as farmers cannot get their produce into the city to sell.

“They [farmers] are not safe going into the city because they will pass places where the majority of the people are Muslims. We are contacting them and telling them that as of now it is not safe for them to go to the city while the trouble is going on. The pastors are visiting them and having prayers with each family,” said one ministry leader.

Rebels also attacked the nearby island of Basilan. Military airstrikes successfully foiled attempts by insurgents to take over Lamitan City.

Last Friday a stray bullet struck the exterior of the building where a ministry partner in Basilan holds its kindergarten class. Fortunately no children or teachers were present since classes had already been canceled for the week.

These students receive a Christian education at a school in Mindanao.

The ministry established the kindergarten and an orphanage for children from the Muslim Yakan tribe. Through Christian Aid´s child sponsorship program, impoverished or orphaned Yakan children receive food, education, and Christian nurturing.

Mindanao, the southernmost of the three largest island groups in the Philippines, has a significant Muslim presence. Arab traders brought Islam to the region about 200 years before the introduction of Catholicism by the Spaniards in the late 1500s.

Fueled by religious differences and poverty, separatists have sought to create an autonomous Muslim state for four decades. The sporadic but ongoing violence in Mindanao has claimed the lives of 120,000 people and left two million displaced.

One ministry partner attributes this latest eruption of violence at least in part to the MNLF´s frustration as they become overshadowed by a rival rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF signed a peace agreement with the Filipino government last October and is said to be in talks with the government for a new Muslim autonomy deal.

Those negotiations might diminish MNLF´s bargaining power and adversely affect a separate peace deal made between MNLF leader Nur Misuari and the government in 1996—a deal which both sides were accused of reneging.

“Most of the ministries in the south believe that the actions taken by the MNLF are a rebellious act against the government because Nur Misuari felt excluded in the Bansangmoro agreement,” explained the Christian Aid ministry partner, whose all-Filipino organization trains missionaries to share the gospel among over 20 animist and Muslim tribal groups.

Residents are returning to their homes after an 11-day standoff between rebel forces and government troops.

“All of the missionaries who are working with these people groups have been cautious. And I think God has given us wisdom and strategies on how to deal with the situation and how to approach the ministry so that the people would accept us, love us, and support our presence among them,” he added.

While skirmishes are commonplace in parts of Mindanao, Zamboanga City is normally a haven for its largely Christian population. The spreading violence raises concern about safety in other peaceful areas as the rebels crisscross the countryside and recruit young men for their training camps.

Whatever the outcome, the ministry is committed to strengthening local churches by discipling believers and developing leaders who can stand strong in the face of opposition. He asks Christians to join together in praying for God´s intervention in Mindanao and for gospel workers to courageously preach the truth in all circumstances.

“We need to make the Christian community aware of what is happening and what will possibly take place in the future,” he advised. “It would be more challenging for Christians to practice our religious faith under the Islamic government. On the other hand, it would be a great opportunity for Christians to share their faith with their Muslim neighbors and friends.”

Please pray:

  • For order to be restored in Zamboanga City and the island of Basilan
  • For the release of all of the hostages being held by the rebel forces
  • For a peace agreement to be reached and upheld by all parties involved
  • For protection for churches and ministries operating in Mindanao
  • For the leaders and militias of the Muslim groups to believe in Christ
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