|2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.
Adherents of all faiths are free to exercise their religious beliefs in all parts of the country without government interference or restriction. However, there is a socioeconomic disparity between the Christian majority and the Muslim minority. There is also some ethnic-cultural discrimination against Muslims. This has led some Muslims to seek--and the Government to grant--a degree of political autonomy to Muslims in the southwestern part of the country. The principal remaining armed insurgent Muslim group continued to seek greater autonomy or an independent Muslim state. Negotiations between the Government and this group are punctuated by violent clashes that have claimed many lives on both sides, including noncombatants. Militant Muslim splinter groups, which demand the immediate establishment of an Islamic state, have resorted to terrorism. Mainstream Muslim leaders strongly criticized these tactics.
The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Embassy staff members have met with representatives of all major faiths to learn about their concerns on a variety of issues. In addition the U.S. Government supports the Government's peace process with Muslim insurgents in Mindanao, which has the potential to contribute to a better climate for interfaith relations. The U.S. Agency for International Development provides training and economic assistance to former Muslim combatants who seek jobs and business opportunities, and support for their agricultural livelihood projects.
Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice. Both national and other levels of government generally protect this right and do not tolerate its abuse, either by government or private institutions. Although Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, is the dominant religion, there is no state religion. The Government does not restrict adherents of other religions from practicing their faith. The Government provides no direct subsidies to institutions for religious purposes, including aid to the extensive school systems maintained by religious orders and church groups.
Organized religions must register with the Securities and Exchange Commission as nonstock, nonprofit organizations, and with the Bureau of Internal Revenue to establish their tax-exempt status. There were no reports of discrimination in the registration system during the period covered by this report.
The Office of Muslim affairs, funded through the Office of the President, generally limits its activities to fostering Islamic religious practices, although it also has the authority to coordinate projects for economic growth in predominantly Muslim areas. The office's Philippine Pilgrimage Authority helps coordinate the travel of religious pilgrimage groups to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, providing bus service to and from airports, hotel reservations, and guides. The Presidential Assistant for Muslim Affairs helps coordinate relations with countries that have large Islamic populations that have contributed to Mindanao's economic development and to the peace process with insurgent groups.
In 1996 the Government signed a peace agreement with the Islamic Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), concluding an often violent struggle that had lasted more than 20 years. The Government is working with the MNLF's leaders on a variety of development programs to reintegrate former MNLF fighters into the market economy through jobs and business opportunities. During the first half of 2000, government forces engaged in armed clashes with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the chief remaining armed separatist group. Peace talks were suspended in April 2000. The MILF continued its armed struggle for an independent Islamic state in Mindanao for the Bangsa Moro, who are Islamic citizens. Most Philippine Muslims do not support the MILF.
The Code of Muslim Personal Laws, enacted in 1977, recognizes the Shari'a civil law system as part of national law. However, it applies only to Muslims regardless of their place of residence in the country. As part of their strategy for a moral and religious revival in western Mindanao, some Muslim religious leaders (ulamas) argue that the Government should allow Islamic courts to extend their jurisdiction to criminal law cases, a step beyond the many civil law cases that they already can settle as part of the judicial system in western Mindanao. Some ulamas also support the MILF's goal of forming an autonomous region governed in accordance with Islamic law.
Over 85 percent of citizens of this former Spanish colony claim membership in the Roman Catholic Church, according to the most recent official census data on religious preference (1990). Believers within the Christian tradition comprised 93.7 percent of the population. Followers of the Islamic faith totaled 4.6 percent, and Buddhists 0.1 percent. Indigenous and other religious traditions accounted for 1.2 percent of those surveyed. Atheists and persons who did not designate a religious preference equaled 0.3 percent. 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, where Muslims are still a majority, often prevented them from conducting accurate counts outside urban areas. Current estimates place the number of Muslims at about 5 million, or approximately 7 percent of the population. Muslims reside principally in Mindanao and nearby islands and are the largest single minority religious group in the country.
There is no available data on "nominal" members of religious organizations. Estimates of nominal members of the largest group, Roman Catholics, range from 60 to 65 percent of the total population. These estimates are based on regular church attendance. El Shaddai, a lay charismatic movement affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, has grown rapidly in the last decade; it claims over 6 million members, but this figure includes congregations abroad, largely composed of Filipino workers.
Among Protestant and other Christian groups, there are numerous denominations, including Seventh Day-Adventists, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Assemblies of God, and Philippine (Southern) Baptist 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 are Christians. However, observers 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 is 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 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. There are also significant Muslim communities in nearby Mindanao provinces, including Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte, and North Cotabato. There are sizable Muslim neighborhoods in metropolitan Manila on Luzon, and in Palawan.
Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Intermittent government efforts to integrate Muslims into political and economic society have achieved only limited success to date. Muslims, who are concentrated in the most impoverished parts of western Mindanao, complained that the Government has not made sufficient effort toward economic development in those areas.
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 Council of Evangelical Churches of the Philippines. Members of the NEC met periodically with the President to discuss social and political questions.
Christians, Muslims, and others are free to proselytize.
Based on a traditional policy of promoting moral education, local public schools make available to church groups the opportunity to teach moral values during school hours. Attendance is not mandatory, and various churches rotate in sharing classroom space. In many parts of Mindanao, Muslim students routinely attend Catholic schools from elementary to university level. These students are not required to undertake Catholic religious instruction.
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.
Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens
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.
Section II. Societal Attitudes
Religious affiliation is customarily a function of a person's family, ethnic group, or tribal membership. Historically, Muslims have been alienated socially from the dominant Christian majority. Intermittent government efforts to integrate Muslims into political and economic society have achieved only limited success to date. Muslims, who are concentrated in the most impoverished parts of western Mindanao, complained that the Government made insufficient efforts toward economic development in these areas.
Christian and Muslim communities live in proximity throughout central and western Mindanao and, in many areas, their relationship is harmonious. However, efforts by the dominant Christian population to resettle in traditionally Muslim areas, particularly over the past 60 years, have brought resentment from some Muslim residents.
Muslims view Christian proselytizing as an extension of a historical effort by the Christian majority to deprive them of their homeland and cultural identity as well as their religion. Christian missionaries work in most parts of western Mindanao, often within Muslim communities. The killing of Roman Catholic bishop Benjamin de Jesus in Jolo City in Sulu province near Mindanao in 1997 still has not been resolved, but most observers doubt that the motivation for the killing was rooted in religious differences.
Religious dialog and cooperation among the country's various religious communities are generally amicable. Many religious leaders are involved in ecumenical activities and also in interdenominational efforts to alleviate poverty. The Interfaith Group, which is registered as a 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 their children.
Amicable ties between religious groups are reflected in many nonofficial organizations. The leadership of human rights groups, trade union confederations, and industry associations represent many religious persuasions.
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 have a biased expectation that Muslims have a lower educational level. Many Muslims claim that they continue to be underrepresented in senior civilian and military positions. Predominantly Muslim provinces in Mindanao continue to lag behind the rest of the island of Mindanao in almost all aspects of socioeconomic development.
As part of their strategy for a moral and religious revival in western Mindanao, some Muslim religious leaders (ulamas) argue that the Government should allow Islamic courts to extend their jurisdiction to criminal law cases, a step beyond the many civil law cases they already can settle as part of the judicial system in western Mindanao. Some ulamas also support the MILF's goal of forming an autonomous region governed by Islamic law.
Some Muslim religious leaders asserted that Muslims suffer from economic discrimination, which is reflected in the Government's failure to provide money to stimulate southwestern Mindanao's sluggish economic development. They also cited the lack of proportional Muslim representation in the national government institutions. At present there are no Muslim cabinet secretaries, senators, or Supreme Court justices. Nine Muslims hold seats in the 222-member House of Representatives. Leaders in both Christian and Muslim communities contend that economic disparities and ethnic tensions, more than religious differences, are at the root of the modern separatist movement that emerged in the early 1970's.
The Bishops-Ulamas Conference, which meets periodically to deepen mutual doctrinal understanding between Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders in Mindanao, helps further the Mindanao peace process. The co-chairs 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.
Despite the pronounced increase in fighting between government forces and the MILF, there was continuing progress in improving Christian-Muslim relations through the Southern Philippines Council on Peace and Development, which coordinates economic growth in 14 provinces in Mindanao. MNLF chairman Nur Misuari chairs the council. He also serves as the elected governor of the four-province Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The ARMM was established in 1990 to meet the demand of Muslims for local autonomy in areas where they are a majority or a substantial minority. In September 1999, the plebiscite promised in the 1996 peace agreement between the Government and the MNLF on autonomy for an expanded Islamic region was postponed for 1 year, and it appears unlikely to take place before 2001.
Continued integration of ex-MNLF fighters into the armed forces and police generally was accomplished without difficulty; in some cases, it eased suspicions between Christians and Muslims. However, progress leading to economic development has been halting, and there was a sharp increase in hostilities between the Government and separate MILF forces beginning in January 2000.
Two prominent terrorist kidnapings by splinter Muslim separatist groups occurred in the first half of 2000 and remain unresolved at the end of the period covered by this report. In both cases, political and religious motives have been voiced.
On March 20, members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), an extremist MNLF offshoot that seeks a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines, kidnaped 53 persons on Basilan island. Most of the victims were teachers and school children from two schools, one public and one private (Roman Catholic). The headmaster of the Catholic school, a priest, was among those kidnaped. In addition to money, the ASG kidnapers' demands included the creation of a separate Islamic state in Mindanao, the removal of crosses from public places, and an end to the teaching of Christian values in schools. Following negotiations with the Government in April, the ASG released all 24 Muslim hostages but continued to hold all 29 Christians captive. In May 2000, as government troops approached and 15 hostages attempted to escape their captors, the ASG killed four hostages, including the priest. The kidnapers had tortured some victims, including the priest. Five of the students between the ages of 10 and 13 years were released in June in a "hostage swap" for members of the family of an ASG leader.
On Easter Sunday, April 23, 2000, another band of Islamic separatists with links to the Basilan ASG kidnaped 21 tourists and workers of several nationalities in Malaysia's Sabah province and brought them to the Philippine island of Jolo in Sulu province. The hostages suffered from hunger, diarrhea, and malnutrition. One Malaysian hostage was released in June 2000, but the others remained in custody at the end of that month. Although the kidnapers originally demanded the establishment of a separate Islamic state and the release of terrorists held in a Western country, their principal objective was ransom money.
The ASG seeks the immediate establishment of an independent Islamic state in the southwestern Philippines. Although many Muslims believe that discrimination against them is rooted in their religious culture, most do not favor the establishment of a separate state, and the overwhelming majority rejects terrorism as a means of achieving a satisfactory level of autonomy. Mainstream Muslim leaders, both domestic and foreign, have strongly criticized the actions of the ASG and its renegade offshoots as "un-Islamic."
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Embassy staff members have met with representatives of all major faiths to learn about their concerns on a variety of issues. The United States supports the Government's peace process with Muslim insurgents in Mindanao as a way of contributing to a better climate for interfaith cooperation. The U.S. Agency for International Development provides training and economic assistance to former MNLF combatants seeking jobs and business opportunities.
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