A bombing of a Catholic Mass, jeopardizes plans for peace talks with the rebel groups in the region.The following article was published in the January-February 2024 issue of NewsNotes.
On December 3, a bomb exploded during a Catholic Mass in a gymnasium of the Mindanao State University in Marawi, Philippines, killing four and injuring fifty. A group affiliated with the Islamic State took credit for the attack. The attack raises a number of grave concerns for peace and human rights advocates and the Muslim community and other faith groups in Mindanao.
The city of Marawi was the site of a deadly five month clash between Islamic State-related militants and government forces in 2017 that left the city devastated, displacing hundreds of thousands and damaging 7,000 homes, 21 schools, 42 mosques, and one church. U.S. special forces participated in the siege. Government plans to rebuild have gone largely unfinished. In March, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns (MOGC) director Susan Gunn met with women from among 1,000 residents of the city from 153 families who remain internally displaced, still living in temporary shelters six years after the siege. In December, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. ordered recovery efforts sped up and finished in the coming weeks, but it is unclear whether the displaced families will receive needed help in rebuilding their homes, or what will become of the camps.
The December 3 bombing raises fears of escalation that could derail newly restarted peace talks in Mindanao. In response to the attack, Bishop Pablo David of Kalookan, President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said in a statement, “Such violence should not only be denounced; it should also be renounced as a way of seeking redress by every peace-loving Filipino.”
Returned Maryknoll Lay Missioner and former Executive Director of the Maryknoll Affiliates Fred Goddard sent MOGC a statement from the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute, where he currently works: “MPI strongly condemns the act of terror that resulted in the loss of innocent lives as a result of the bomb explosion while a Catholic mass service was taking place in the MSU Marawi Gym. Such heinous acts starkly contradict the principles of peace, harmony, and respect for human life, causing profound pain and suffering to individuals and communities affected by this tragedy.”
Goddard notes that other partners have “expressed concern about the Philippine government intervention and possible increase in human rights violations in the wake of the bombing.” He cites a statement from the Freedom of Religion and Belief Consortium which says, “We condemn any form of violence. We also condemn violence, physical or verbal, as a response to this terror. We are saddened by the pushback of this senseless violent act in the communities, especially after observing and witnessing the proliferation of hate speech and statements directed at Muslim communities... This will provide the spoilers and marketers of violence with more opportunities.”
International context: Gaza and China
The motivation behind the timing of the bombing is unclear. It takes place at a time when President Marcos has announced plans to restart peace talks with rebel groups in the region, but Vice President Sara Duterte has expressed opposition to the idea, the peace process having been halted by her father, former president Rodrigo Duterte. Goddard speculates that the motivation may have been internal issues in Mindanao, but notes that, “In general, there has been strong condemnation of what is happening in Gaza across Mindanao, especially in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM)… While this is very separate from what happened at MSU, it does indicate the heightened awareness in Mindanao.” The BARMM Parliament has called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
MOGC and other faith groups have been advocating for the United States to pass the Philippines Human Rights Act (PHRA), which would stop U.S. aid to Philippine security forces responsible for abuses. Pushback from U.S. politicians has centered on the role of the Philippines as a key partner in countering China’s influence in the region. Tensions between the two countries regarding the South China Sea (a part of the sea referred to in the Philippines as the West Philippines Sea) have escalated in recent weeks. In December, Japan gave the Philippines an air surveillance radar system, the first time Japan has exported a full defense system since lifting its arms trade ban in 2014.
Between longstanding U.S. support for Philippine military activity in Mindanao as part of the global “War on Terror,” and for the Philippine military more broadly as a counterweight to China, it seems unlikely that the United States will increase pressure on the Philippine government to respect human rights in Mindanao unless Congress passes the PHRA this year.
Faith in Action
Ask Congress to pass the Philippines Human Rights Act. https://mogc.info/PH-HR-Act
Photo of MOGC Director Susan Gunn with internally displaced residents of the city of Marawi.