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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice. Over 85 percent of citizens claim membership in the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church periodically plays a semiofficial mediation role during political crises, and government officials sometimes maintain an informal dialog with Catholic Church leaders on political and social issues. According to the most recent Official Census on Religious Preference (1990), believers within the Christian tradition included 93.7 percent of the population, followers of the Islamic faith totaled 4.6 percent, and Buddhists 0.1 percent. Indigenous people and other religious traditions amounted to 1.2 percent of those surveyed. Atheists and other persons who did not designate a religious preference equaled 0.3 percent. However, some academics question the accuracy of the statistical sampling in the 1990 census. Some Muslim scholars argue that census takers seriously undercounted the number of Muslims because security concerns in western Mindanao often prevented them from conducting accurate counts outside the urban areas.

There is no available data on "nominal" members of religious organizations. Estimates of "nominal" members of the largest group, Roman Catholics, range between 60 to 65 percent of the total population, based on regular church attendance. El Shaddai, a lay charismatic movement, is affiliated with the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and has grown rapidly in the last decade; it claims over 6 million members, but this figure includes congregations abroad.

Among Protestant and other Christian groups, there are numerous denominations. In addition there are two churches established by Filipino religious leaders, the Independent Church of the Philippines or Aglipayan, and the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ). A majority of the country's nearly 12 million indigenous people reportedly have been converted to Christianity. However, observers often note that many indigenous groups mix elements of their native religions with Christian beliefs and practices.

Most Muslims belong to the Sunni branch of Islam; there are a small number of Shi'a believers in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur. Approximately 19 percent of the population of Mindanao, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi Tawi is Muslim, according to the 1990 census.

Members of the Muslim minority are concentrated in five provinces of western Mindanao: Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. Significant Muslim communities exist in nearby Mindanao provinces, including Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte, and North Cotabato. Outside Mindanao, there are also sizable Muslim neighborhoods in metropolitan Manila on Luzon, and also in Palawan.

Although Christian and Muslim adherents are free to proselytize for new believers in all parts of the country, religious affiliation is customarily a function of a person's family, ethnic group, or tribal membership. Efforts by the dominant Christian population to resettle in traditionally Muslim areas, particularly over the past 60 years, have brought resentment from Muslim residents. Muslims view Christian proselytizing as an extension of an historic effort to deprive them of their homeland and cultural identity as well as their religion. Muslim leaders report, however, over 100,000 conversions to Islam in the northern Luzon region in the last decade; Christian missionaries work in most parts of western Mindanao, often finding close ties within the Muslim communities. The killing of Catholic bishop Benjamin de Jesus in Jolo City on Sulu Island near Mindanao in late 1997 led to grief among the predominantly Muslim community, which attended his funeral rites in large numbers. The assailants who killed Bishop de Jesus have not been tried. Those persons initially arrested remain under detention, although human rights groups report that other prominent suspects remain at large.

The Office of Muslim Affairs, which is funded through the President's office, generally limits its activities to fostering Islamic religious practices, although it also has the authority to coordinate projects for economic growth in "Muslim areas." As part of its role, the Office's Philippine Pilgrimage Authority helps to coordinate the travel of pilgrims to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, providing bus service to the local and Manila airports and hotel reservations and guides for pilgrimage groups. President Joseph Estrada appointed a Presidential Assistant for Muslim Affairs to help coordinate diplomatic ties with countries with large Islamic populations that have contributed to Mindanao's economic development and to the "peace process" with insurgent groups.

The Government's National Ecumenical Commission (NEC) fosters interfaith dialog among the major religious groups--the Roman Catholic Church, Islam, Iglesia ni Cristo, the Philippine Independent Church Aglipayan, and Protestant denominations. The Protestant churches are represented in the NEC by the National Council of Churches of the Philippines and the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches of the Philippines. Members of the NEC meet periodically with the President to discuss social and political questions. The NEC has worked to build public support for the Government's "peace process" initiative with Muslim insurgents in Mindanao.

Reflecting the constitutional ban on "establishment of religion," the Government provides no direct subsidies to institutions for religious purposes, including aid to the extensive school system maintained by religious orders or other church groups.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

II. Societal Attitudes

In terms of religious dialog and cooperation, relations among the country's many religious communities are generally amicable. According to leaders of both the Christian and Muslim communities, economic and ethnic tensions, more than religious differences, are the chief causes of armed clashes in Mindanao between the armed forces and the main remaining Muslim insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). However, MILF leaders also claim that there is a religious and cultural justification for continuing to struggle for an Islamic state, asserting that only through an independent "Bangsamoro" state can Islam be protected. The Government and the MILF engage in intermittent low-level talks intended to lead to a higher level peace dialog. In 1996 the Government signed a peace agreement with the older and larger Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), concluding an often violent struggle lasting over 20 years. The Government has cooperated with the MNLF's leaders in a variety of development programs to reintegrate former MNLF fighters into the market economy through jobs.

Since 1977 a Code of Muslim Personal Laws recognizes the Shari'a legal system as a part of national law; it applies to Muslims regardless of their place of residence. The Code is not independent of, but subject to, the Constitution and other national laws of general application. Some Muslim insurgent leaders seek to extend the use of Shari'a law beyond its personal application in the Mindanao or regions having predominantly Muslim populations, although this issue is peripheral to the principal economic issues at the center of the armed conflict. As part of their strategy for a moral and religious revival in western Mindanao, a number of Muslim religious leaders ("ulamas") support the MILF's goal of forming an autonomous region governed by Islamic law. These leaders assert that Muslims suffer from economic discrimination, reflected in the Government's failure to provide money to rejuvenate the area's sluggish economic development. The religious leaders' perception is often based on the lack of proportional Muslim representation in the national government institutions in Manila. There are no Muslim cabinet secretaries, Senators, or Supreme Court justices. Nine Muslims hold seats in the 222-member House of Representatives.

In light of this, religious and MILF leaders argue that the Government should allow these areas' Islamic courts to extend their jurisdiction to the trying of criminal law cases, a step beyond the many civil law cases they already can settle as part of the judicial system in western Mindanao.

Christian and Muslim communities live in proximity throughout western Mindanao and, in many areas, their relationship is harmonious. In a climate of periodic conflicts over economic issues, including land disputes, some communities maintain nonofficial armed groups as a means of protection. Reports of "vigilante" terrorist activities are rare, indicating that most armed civilian groups limit their roles to guarding their communities.

Historically, Muslims have been alienated from the dominant Christian majority, and government efforts to integrate Muslims into the political and economic fabric of the country have met with only limited success. The national culture, with its emphasis on familial, tribal, and regional loyalties, creates informal barriers whereby access to jobs or resources is provided first to those of one's own family or group. Some employers practice a "de facto" bias against hiring Muslims based on a biased expectation that they have a lower educational level. Many Muslims claimed that they continue to be underrepresented in senior civilian and military positions. A 1998 Asian Development Bank study noted that the Muslim provinces in Mindanao lag behind the rest of the island in almost all aspects of socioeconomic development. However, there are no systematic social biases that exclude Muslims from employment opportunities if they have the requisite training.

There was progress in improving Christian-Muslim relations following a September 1996 government agreement with the insurgent MNLF. In accordance with the agreement, a Southern Philippines Council on Peace and Development was established to coordinate economic growth in 14 provinces in Mindanao. MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari became its chair. Shortly thereafter Misuari also was elected governor of the four-province Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was established in 1990 to meet the demand of Muslims for local autonomy in areas where they are a majority or a substantial minority. The 1996 agreement also provided for the integration of MNLF fighters into the armed forces and police. A promised 1999 plebiscite to expand the ARMM still requires enabling legislation.

This initiative eased suspicions between Christians and Muslims, setting the stage for cooperation and economic growth. However, progress has been halting. Although the agreement has brought somewhat more regional stability, the Muslim provinces continue to be the site of intermittent military clashes with insurgent MILF forces, resulting in family displacements and economic problems.

Many religious leaders are involved in ecumenical activities and interdenominational efforts to alleviate poverty. The Interfaith Group, which is registered as an nongovernmental organization, includes Roman Catholic, Islamic, and Protestant church representatives who have joined together in an effort to support the Mindanao peace process through work with communities of former combatants. Besides social and economic support, the Interfaith Group seeks to encourage Mindanao communities to instill their faiths in the younger generation.

The Bishops-Ulamas Conference, which meets periodically to deepen mutual doctrinal understanding between Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders in Mindanao, also fosters the success of the Mindanao "peace process." The cochairs of the Conference are the Archbishop of Davao, Ferdinand Capalla, and the President of the Ulama Association, Majid Mutilan, who is also the governor of Lanao del Sur province. The Conference seeks to foster exchanges at the local level between parish priests and local Islamic teachers. Paralleling the dialog fostered by religious leaders, the Silsila Foundation in Zamboanga City hosts a regional exchange among Muslim and Christian academics and local leaders meant to reduce bias and promote cooperation.

Amicable ties between religious groups are reflected in many nonofficial organizations. The leadership of human rights groups, trade union confederations, and industry associations represents many religious persuasions. Reflecting the amicable ties between the Muslim and Christian communities in Mindanao, the rector of Cotabato City's Notre Dame University, Reverend Eliseo Mercado, was named by negotiators on both sides of the "peace process" (army generals and leaders of the MILF) to serve on a "quick reaction team" that responds to outbreaks of armed conflict. Mercado often has served as a mediator between the government forces and insurgents.

Although some media accounts identified Muslim groups as responsible for the 1998 kidnapings of two European missionary priests, the kidnapings actually were motivated by economic goals. Following their release, both victims described their kidnapers as having sought simply a ransom and/or favorable publicity for their individual plights as former Muslim insurgency combatants whom government reintegration programs had failed to help.

Based on traditional policy of promoting moral education, local public schools make available to church groups the opportunity to teach moral values within school hours. The various churches rotate in sharing classroom space.

There are occasional reports of religious bias in employment, which is illegal. These reports usually entailed an employer preference for members of certain religious groups. Some employers favor hiring members of religious groups who commonly are viewed as unlikely to join unions or complain about contractual employment that entails frequent layoffs.

A 1998 Asian Development Bank study noted that the predominantly Muslim provinces in Mindanao lag behind the rest of the nation in almost all aspects of socioeconomic development. While there is no systematic social bias that excludes qualified Muslims in those areas from employment opportunities, some employers practice an effective bias against hiring Muslims or others by first providing access to jobs to those of their own family or religious group.

III. U.S. Government Actions

U.S. Embassy staff members have met with representatives of all the major faiths on various occasions to learn about their concerns. In July 1998, the Embassy supported efforts by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to protect Filipino Christians who were arrested in Saudi Arabia on charges of proselytizing. They eventually were released and allowed to return. The Embassy discussed religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights.

The U.S. Embassy supports the Government's peace process with Muslim insurgents in Mindanao as one way in which to contribute to a better climate for interfaith cooperation.

U.S. Agency for International Development programs provide training and initial economic assistance to former MNLF combatants seeking jobs or business opportunities.

[End of Document]

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Revised last: 11-09-1999