Church Mediates a Cease-fire in Southern Philippines

Bishops Optimistic About Peace on Mindanao

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KIDAPAWAN, Philippines, JULY 21, 2003 (Zenit.org).- A cease-fire between government and rebel forces is bringing hope for peace to at least one part of the sprawling Philippine archipelago.



"We are delighted," Bishop Romulo Valles of the Kidapawan Diocese, on the Island of Mindanao, told the Fides news service after the announcement of the cease-fire agreement. The pact was signed on Friday by the government and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF is fighting for autonomy in the southern Philippines.

"The cease-fire agreement is truly a welcome signal of hope and encouragement," the bishop said. "I am optimistic for the outcome of peace talks. There is commitment and good will on both sides."

The Kidapawan Diocese is right in the middle of the conflict between army and rebels, as is the Cotabato Diocese led by Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, outgoing president of the Philippines bishops' conference.

The cease-fire anticipates peace talks in Malaysia next week. Bishop Valles explained the situation: "There are good probabilities of success for the peace talks because both sides appear to be willing and ready to sign a lasting peace accord. They trust each other and agree that war is harmful to all sides: It impoverishes and displaces local people, it discourages investments and prevents the economy from growing, it feeds social divisions and tensions."

The Church has played an important role in rebuilding trust and encouraging dialogue. Archbishop Quevedo has worked extensively in the mediation efforts.

Bishop Valles says that the Church in the southern Philippines has widespread credibility. "We are respected by the government and appreciated by the MILF leaders and by the Muslim population," he noted. "We are in a favorable position to encourage peace."

Recently the bishops' conference issued an open letter underlining the necessity to resume negotiations. This was followed by an intense exchange of letters between MILF leader Salamat Hashim and Bishop Quevedo which helped to clarify the position of the rebels and re-establish direct relations.

The central government in Manila has said it will crack down on terrorism, but is ready to talk with the MILF, which has condemned terrorist attacks in the Philippines in the past year. On this basis it was possible to sign a cease-fire agreement and resume talks.

Moreover, Philippine Vice President Teofisto Guingona has requested the involvement of Christian and Muslim religious representatives in the peace process between the government and MILF, the Misna agency reported today.

Guingona believes that in order to achieve a lasting peace in Mindanao, there must be an interreligious rapprochement through experts who can point out to the negotiators the religious and cultural aspects of the secessionist rebellion.

Following a meeting held a few days ago with Guingona and Mindanao's administrators, the Bishops-Ulema Conference -- an organization that embraces the Christian and Muslim leaders of Mindanao and promotes dialogue and peace initiatives -- stated it is willing to act as observer and adviser on compliance with the cease-fire.