University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Scott Appleby

The war being waged in mineral-rich Mindanao, the southernmost island region of the Philippines, is a perfect storm of contemporary violent conflict. It is about land and resources, religion and clan, sovereignty, governance, and corruption in high and low places. Over a span of four decades, the fighting has resulted in more than 120,000 deaths, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, and more than $2 billion in damages to homes and businesses.

The latest news from Mindanao is big. On October 7, 2012, the Government of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) reached an historic Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro People of Mindanao. The parties agreed that the status quo is unacceptable and that Bangsamoro, a new autonomous political entity representing the Muslim people in the region, will replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

If implemented successfully, this new political arrangement would entail a major re-mapping of competing Catholic and Muslim sovereignties over certain areas and cities that have long been the subject of contention between Muslim and Christian communities.


Both the indigenous Lumad people of the region and the Muslims, or Bangsomoro people, preceded the Christian, mostly Roman Catholic, presence that arrived with the Spaniards in the 16th century. Muslim nationalists resisted Spanish and later American colonialism and settlement policies and have long sought to make Mindanao a separate homeland.

In the 1970s the government and Muslim independence movement signed an agreement that granted autonomy to 13 provinces in the southern region of Mindanao, where the majority of Muslims live. The agreement collapsed, however, leading to the founding of the MILF, a rebel movement influenced by the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism in Southeast Asia. Further negotiations in subsequent years led to the creation of a formal autonomous region in the south, but only 5 of 13 southern provinces agreed to participate.

With the onset of the “Global War on Terror” after 2001, large-scale government military campaigns ravaged Mindanao in the name of “counter-terrorism,” causing casualties, destruction, and forced displacement on a massive scale. During this period the small shadowy Islamist terrorist network known as the Abu Sayyaf emerged.

With the onset of the “Global War on Terror,” large-scale government military campaigns ravaged Mindanao causing casualties, destruction, and forced displacement.

As tensions increased during the decade, both Christians and Muslims remobilized their forces. A 2008 Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain accommodating Bangsamoro land claims offered brief hopes of progress, but it was opposed by Christian interests and struck down by the Supreme Court of the Philippines.

Armed violence erupted thereafter, with skirmishes reported in mixed Muslim/Christian areas of central Mindanao.  The MILF attacked Christian villages and killed many Catholics. Meanwhile, kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf sparked renewed counter-terrorism operations by the Philippines’ military forces.


The October 7 Framework Agreement is a huge boost to the overall peace process, but it will not work without the cooperation of religious leaders. Peacebuilding in a globalized world requires the assistance of sympathetic external actors such as Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Peacebuilding Network. These transnational Catholic actors have been working with both Catholic and Muslim religious leaders to overcome the deep suspicion and hostility that exists between the rival religious communities.

The potential political influence of the Catholic bishops is considerable but until now not fully realized. They are poised to play a more active, coordinated, and united role in the peace process by providing moral guidelines for the Catholic community, which comprises 80 percent of the country, and the wider society, including politicians. But now, with this new—and likely controversial—framework in place, they must prepare their flock for post-accord peacebuilding. They know, as do the region’s Muslim leaders, that the new agreement will be a dead letter without religious buy-in, both Catholic and Muslim.

The potential political influence of the Catholic bishops is considerable but until now not fully realized.

The bishops can draw upon many years of grassroots seeding of the peace process—through Christian-Muslim dialogue, a Bishops-Ulama Forum, local mediation efforts, ritual celebrations of inter-religious understanding, the creation of nonviolent zones of peace, and other efforts to build a Catholic-Bangsamoro-Lumad culture of peace.

Will these trust-building efforts help secure the agreement as politicians attempt to implement it? Stay tuned. But be assured that the new, tentative step forward will falter if the religious leaders do not succeed.

Scott Appleby is the Regan Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and director of the global research initiative Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.