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Persecution Besets Church in the Philippines

January 07, 2016

Children in a remote area of Mindanao, Philippines helped gather coconut leaves for a church building that was destroyed by arson on Christmas Eve.
Children in a remote area of Mindanao, Philippines helped gather coconut leaves for a church building that was destroyed by arson on Christmas Eve.

An indigenous ministry leader in the Philippines first presented the gospel to a tribal chief in a remote area of Mindanao by making a call to his cellphone.

They had never spoken to each other before, and the tribal chief, Makisig*, did not welcome the message gladly.

The ministry leader, Efren Puzon*, had obtained Makisig's phone number from the chieftain's niece, who had come to Christ at a Christian youth center in an undisclosed city on the island of Mindanao. She wanted her tribe – located in a hotbed of Islamist rebels and communist militants – to hear the message of Christ's redeeming death and resurrection.

"At first he didn't want Christ," Puzon said, "but I did not lose hope, for the sake of our child here at the center and her family. We invited him here, and he came, and he then understood what I'd told him by cellphone."

Makisig put his trust in Christ, and he asked Puzon if he and his wife would take the message of Christ's salvation to his tribe, located in an undisclosed area of Mindanao.

"At first we were afraid, because we know from the news that many have died in the area, and that it is a hide-out of the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] and leftists," Puzon said. "But we thank God we had the commitment to share the gospel."

Makisig introduced Puzon to the tribal elders, and the gospel began to spread as they turned to Christ and Puzon's wife taught and fed the area children. A church was born in Makisig's house in December 2013, and its rapid growth soon led him to offer his family lot of 150 square meters to build a "tribal hall."

"We have to call it tribal hall so others in the tribe will not be afraid to enter," Puzon said. "But actually, for us it is a not only a tribal hall, but also a church and a school."

The congregation cut timber for posts and gathered nipa fronds that they wove into a roof, and children gathered coconut leaves to be formed into walls. The church also fashioned benches and a pulpit out of bamboo, and thus they completed a building in April 2014.

Persecution soon followed, culminating in the structure being burned down last Christmas Eve.

As the congregation met for a midnight Christmas Eve service, someone threw a firecracker known as a "triangle" onto the structure, setting ablaze its weave of bamboo and flattened sticks. Eight men were slightly burned trying to save Bibles written in two local languages. The only five copies of the Bible in a local tribal language were destroyed. Among the more common Cebuano-language Bibles, some were salvaged but many of those were partially burned.

The congregation suspected a Muslim from another tribe set the fire, as a member of the church had married someone from the tribe that has strongly opposed the bold gospel proclamation among them. The suspected Muslim denied throwing the firecracker onto the structure, though Makisig's nephew was witness to the act but remained silent out of fear of retaliation by the other tribe, Makisig said.

"Now all our hard work, love and sacrifice to build the tribal hall-church-school is gone and turned to ashes," Puzon said. "But we know our labor of love is not in vain. Everything is for our own good, and God is always in control; God is with us."

Established in an area with a population that is about 60 percent Muslim, the church's short history has never been without persecution. While Puzon trained Makisig to preach, the ministry leader traveled to the area once a month to preach, and each time the structure was pelted with stones, he said. The ire of the local villagers is one reason the ministry leader has also exhorted the congregation from afar – addressing the church through the speakerphone of a member's cellular device.

Baptism at a church in Mindanao located in an area filled with Islamist and communist militants.
Baptism at a church in Mindanao located in an area filled with Islamist and communist militants.

"Their children also are persecuted," he said. "Other children tease them, saying they will be crucified like their Issa [Jesus]. Some of the children are bullied in the school. Other children hit their heads for fun. Their women, too, are being gossiped about, with slander that they sleep with me. Some women whose work is washing the clothes of the other families are now banned from washing clothes as a means of living."

The area's children had already been traumatized as witnesses to Islamist militant disturbances, he said.

"Brother Makisig told me by phone that if they passed through and survived the war and conflicts in their area before, when they didn't have God, how much more can they survive now because they have God," Puzon said. "He said, 'I read from the Bible that if Jesus Christ was persecuted, we as servants will not be above our Master; we will also be persecuted.'"

Makisig and his people are hard-pressed to rebuild their church building, as the area has been depleted of timber and nipa fronds, and even if materials could be found, such a structure could easily be burned down again. Though the area is remote, the church is praying to rebuild with walls of concrete and a roof of galvanized iron at cost of 200,000 pesos (US$4,260), Puzon said.

"Brother Makisig said there's no lack of workers, the only problem is the materials," Puzon said. "We are praying for a bigger tribal hall-church because Brother Makisig believes God will multiply the members of the church. And to God be the glory, the number who believe in Christ is growing in spite of hindrances and persecutions."

* (names changed for security reasons)

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Help rebuild Church that was burned by extremists; Philippines
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