Violence erupted last week when the national army attempted to capture Isnilon Hapilon, who authorities believe is the main ISIS leader in the Philippines. The ISIS-inspired Maute group stormed the city of Marawi in retaliation, taking over a hospital and kidnapping a number of Christians.
In response, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law on the entire island, giving security forces sweeping powers to enforce curfews and detain civilians without charge.
Mr Duterte promised to be “harsh” and said his version of martial law will be “no different to what Marcos did”.
Ferdinand Marcos was the former president of the Philippines who imposed martial law on the country from 1972 to 1981. His reign was known for its human rights violations, illegal arrests, torture and summary executions.
The Uniting Church in Australia is a member of the CCA, a regional ecumenical organisation that represents 100 churches across 15 countries. Mathews George Chunakara, General Secretary of the CCA, called for interfaith unity amidst escalating religious tensions in the country.
“At this crucial time, it is imperative that the Christians, Muslims and Lumads (the indigenous peoples of Mindanao) strengthen their solidarity and unite in a concerted stand, especially to meet the challenges of martial law and the possibilities of human rights violations, including warrantless arrests and detention, torture and political killings,” Mr Chunakara said.
The CCA called on President Duterte to lift martial law in Mindanao and focus on addressing the root causes of conflict in the country.
Mindanao has historically been one of the poorest regions in the Philippines and is hampered by low socio-economic development.
The southern part of Philippines has faced multiple uprisings since the 1970s, from communist insurgencies to Muslim separatists.
“Complex historical injustices or the historical causes of the problems must be addressed in order to solve the problems in Mindanao in particular, and in the Philippines in general,” Mr Chunakara said.
“We believe that the declaration of martial law does not solve fundamental problems. Peace can only be attained in Mindanao when the root causes of the armed conflicts are addressed through diligent efforts.”
The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), a partner church of the UCA, echoed the calls for peace and warned against the “chilling effects” marital law will have on the general populace.
“Let us not also fall into the trap of portraying these tragic events as a religious war. This will only increase tensions, and may further fan the flames of Islamophobia. The Maute Group, responsible for this attack, must be held accountable.” the NCCP said.
“This decision and the move to escalate the conflict beyond the immediate attack in Marawi is another attempt at seeking a military solution, which we have seen fail time and time again.”
The Most Revd Ephraim S. Fajuatagana from the NCCP expressed concern over the ramifications martial law will have on the current peace talks between the Muslim Bangasmoro people and the Philippines government.
Since 2012, the two parties have worked towards the formation of an autonomous region within the Philippines for the Bangasmoro.
“We express alarm over the deliberate attempts of the military to directly associate the Maute and Abu Sayyaf (a terrorist group) with the legitimate sectors of the Bangsamoro people who are fighting for self-determination,” Mr Fajuatagana said.
“We denounce this scheme, which may erode the legitimate gains of the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro people.
“Discrediting the Bangsamoro aspiration for self-determination by creating an anti-Muslim hysteria and contextualising it as terrorism contradicts the country’s interest for peace and reconciliation.”