PHILIPPINES – “Fears are growing in the local Christian communities.”

“In some areas of Mindanao we are experiencing exactly the same thing as is happening in Iraq.” These startling words are those of Father Sebastiano D’Ambra, an Italian missionary of the PIME congregation who has spent nearly 50 years in the Philippines. He made his comments to international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

“The situation is a worrying one,” said Father D’Ambra, referring to the anti-Christian attacks that took place on Christmas Day in the south of Mindanao.  He added: “It is difficult to establish for certain whether the violence was directed specifically against Christians, even though everything points to the fact that this was the case. Without doubt our brothers and sisters in the faith are at least one of the targets of these fundamentalist groups.”

The missionary went on to explain that the attacks were carried out by members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a paramilitary Islamist terrorist group that in 2008 split off from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Islamic radicalism has a long history on Mindanao.

“In the last three years the Islamic State has gained a growing number of supporters in Mindanao. ISIS is present here too, albeit not in such an extreme form as in the Middle East,” said Father D’Ambra, who also stressed the fact that many Islamic leaders on the island — which has a strong Muslim presence — urged their people not to celebrate Christmas together with the Christians, which goes against the grain of an ancient and deeply rooted custom in the Philippines.

The media barely reported on the attacks on Christian, because the government is attempting to play it down in view of the forthcoming elections, the priest explained. Nonetheless, fears are growing in the local Christian communities, which have a vivid memory of a major attack carried out by MILF in 2013, which left numerous Christians dead and more than 10,000 homes destroyed.

“Since then the Christians have been extremely cautious in regard to the Muslims, while the Muslims themselves complain of a local government that is run by the majority Christian community — accounting for about approximately 70 percent of the population — and that the Muslim feel does not reflect the growth of their own community,” the missionary said.

The priest is the founder of the Silsilah movement which was founded in1984 to promote interreligious dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Father D’Ambra said: “The growth of radicalism throughout the world is making our mission more difficult and still more necessary than ever at the present time. Even some of the Islamic leaders who are working with us are becoming discouraged. We need to have more courage and more faith. It is a long process, but I am convinced that through dialogue it is possible to bring about real change and create a climate of mercy. Just as Pope Francis is inviting us to do in this Holy Year.”

Marta Petrosillo