National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 4, 2003

Philippine bishops shepherd peace process

By UCA News

The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has called for perseverance in working for peace, saying the government and Muslim rebels agree on the need for negotiations.

Bishops’ conference president Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato reported private communications and meetings between church, government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front officials. In May the conference’s permanent council issued an open letter calling on Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and liberation front chairman Salamat Hashim to declare a cease-fire and resume peace talks. Quevedo said both sides responded positively.

Responding to the bishops’ open letter, the government declared Buliok in central Mindanao “a zone of peace.”

The liberation front announced June 2 it would begin a 10-day, unilateral cease-fire, which was extended another 10 days beginning June 12.

During a speech to evacuee families returning to homes in a former “no man’s land” (a free fire zone for government troops and rebel soldiers), Arroyo said that stabilizing the peace and order situation in the south through a permanent cease-fire is her priority, though “we are still being cautious to ensure the sincerity of the rebel forces.”

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front was formed in 1977 to fight for an independent Islamic state. Rebel leaders began peace talks with the Philippine government in 1997, but those talks stalled repeatedly due to violations of cease-fire agreements signed by both parties.

The latest round of fighting began Feb. 11 when government troops attacked a liberation front camp in Buliok. Civilians died during liberation front attacks on Philippine forces in April and May, causing Arroyo to postpone indefinitely exploratory talks with front representatives that had been set for May 9-11 in Malaysia. On May 17, she ordered “punitive and selective action” against “embedded terrorist cells.”

Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, the rebel group’s vice chairman for military affairs, on June 12 issued a statement asserting that the decision to extend the truce “is also in earnest answer to the growing clamor from various church and Muslim groups, peace advocates, civil society groups and well-intentioned individuals.”

According to Quevedo, “The bottom line of all these peace efforts is the conviction avowedly shared by both the liberation front and the government that only a negotiated political settlement will finally solve the problem in Mindanao, and that war is not the solution.”

“Since this is so,” he continued, “everyone must work perseveringly and determinedly, despite all provocation, toward peace.”

Meanwhile, Philippine Catholic bishops are working with Protestant bishops and Islamic scholars to host a three-day assembly of world religious leaders to promote interfaith cooperation for peace.

A planning meeting June 10 defined the assembly’s theme as “Seeking peace and development through authentic Christian and Muslim dialogue of life.”

The planning meeting in Pasig City, southeast of Manila, brought together the religious leaders and staff of the Catholic bishops’ national social action secretariat, a representative of Catholic Relief Services of the U.S. bishops’ conference and a special adviser to President Arroyo.

The assembly is scheduled for Aug. 19-21 at Subic Bay, about 85 miles northwest of Manila. Formerly a U.S. naval base, Subic Bay is now a resort complex.

Planning for the assembly’s lectures and workshops was led by the Bishops-Ulama Conference conveners -- Archbishop Fernando Capalla of Davao, Mahid Mutilan, president of the Ulama League of the Philippines, and Bishop Hilario Gomez Jr. of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 2003

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