Many Christians in regions of Mindanao, a group of islands forming the southwestern part of the Philippines, are facing constant pressure and violence. This region accounts for about one third of the territory of this island nation, and is home to 22 million people (around 25 percent of the whole population).
Approximately 63 percent of the population is Christian, and one third is Muslim. Especially affected by persecution are the islands of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi where Christian converts are vastly outnumbered by a majority population of Muslims. While the Philippines is not listed on the World Watch List, which lists the top 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe, Mindanao, while only a small part of the country, is a region of significant persecution.
The main source of persecution in Mindanao is Islamic extremism, which especially targets Muslim background believers from the Islamic Sama and Tausug people groups. Those people are famous as “Sea Gypsies”, and they live mainly on Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi islands, though many have now migrated to the region’s main island, Mindanao, for economic reasons. Christians also live on those islands and on Mindanao.
There are several independence movements active on the islands. Anyone leaving the Islamic faith is not just seen as apostate, but also as acting against the struggle for independence or at least autonomy for the region of Mindanao. As a result, the main sources of persecution are leaders of ethnic groups, fanatical movements, local leaders and especially the (extended) families of converts.
After many violent years in Mindanao, factions of the rebel movement and the central government agreed on creating an “Autonomous Region Muslim Mindanao” (ARMM). Despite all promises that basic civil rights, including freedom of religion, will still be guaranteed, there are concerns that Sharia will extend to non-Muslims as well, and that the ARMM will be a stepping stone toward further expansion.
Persecution in the region is generally not very violent as converts face constant pressure rather than violence; however, when Islamic radicals want to put pressure on the government to negotiate, they sometimes resort to violence.
On October 8, a grenade was thrown at a Protestant church building in Pikit Town, Province North Cotabato, disrupting an evening service, killing two believers and wounding three others. The attack is believed to be related to a radical Islamic splinter-group that does not accepting autonomy. Apart from that attack on a church building, violence is usually directly targeted at converts and can result in the burning of a convert’s house, effectively also closing down house churches that may have met in those homes. Neighbors and families closely monitor converts and pressure them to return to Islam. Some converts have received death threats and been forced to leave their homes.
The outlook for the future depends on how the ARMM develops. Will autonomy mean an unchecked government, and will Sharia be applied to non-Muslims as has occurred in many other countries? How will the situation develop on the neighboring islands that do not belong to the Philippines? These questions reflect the ongoing uncertainty. One thing is certain—the region will remain unstable. It will also remain a particularly dangerous place to live as a convert to Christianity because conversion is seen as treason not only to the convert’s family and people, but also to the autonomy of the region.
Father, we pray for Your hand of protection over the people of Mindanao. As you continue to grow Your church there, we pray especially for converts from Islam. Grant the government wisdom in how to treat this region of the Philippine nation. We pray against attack from radical Islamic movements, and we pray for Your gospel to snatch the souls of countless people out of the grip of spiritual darkness and draw them into the light of Christ. As new believers learn to live as followers of Christ, pour into their lives grace upon grace through the preaching of Your Word. In the name of Jesus, who is our comforter and protector, Amen.