by Wes Kawato
Over 2000 years ago Mindanao Island was home to a black-skinned people. Then a wave of brown-skinned invaders arrived from Asia. These newcomers became the ancestors of the people groups that now call Mindanao their home. The invaders settled on all of the islands that make up the Philippines.
They worshipped a god called Bathala, the head of a pantheon of nature spirits. This early religion lacked any moral code. Around 1300 A.D. a Muslim missionary named Tuan Masha’ika arrived on Mindanao. People flocked to hear him teach about a god with a well-defined moral code. Masha’ika, and those who came after him, won many converts to the Muslim religion on Mindanao. The worship of Allah filled the moral vacuum many of these people had felt. By 1521 Islam was firmly established on Mindanao, but there were few, if any, Muslims on the Filipino islands north of Mindanao.
In 1521, Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the Philippines. He claimed all of those islands for Spain and even won a few converts to his Catholic faith. Magellan died on the island of Cebu while trying to settle a tribal dispute. Spain used the death of Magellan as an excuse to take over all of the Philippines. Spain then issued land grants to Spanish families who went to the Philippines. These land grant recipients established the dozen or so rich families that still control the Philippine economy today. In time most people in the northern Philippine Islands adopted a form of Roman Catholicism brought to them by missionaries.
Things were different on Mindanao. Spanish settlers had to be well armed because that island was ruled by a powerful Muslim sultan. There were frequent clashes on Mindanao between the Spanish settlers and the local Muslim population. Often the Spanish army had to rescue the settlers. Catholic missionaries made little effort to understand the culture of the people groups on Mindanao. Such insensitivity often led to local uprisings. The Spanish army often had to rescue missionaries who’d gotten themselves into trouble with the local people. By the end of the Spanish rule in 1898, Spain still didn’t control all of Mindanao. The Spaniards managed to force the Muslim sultans to pay tribute to Spain, but they held very little political control.
From the Spanish to the American Colonial Powers
America took control of the Philippines after defeating Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War. At first the Muslim sultans of Mindanao considered the Americans to be their friends. The Americans had just crushed some “Christian” resistance groups on the northern islands, people the sultans considered to be their enemies.
But the sultans quickly learned that the Americans were just as exploitive as the Spanish. A revolt began on Mindanao. The American army crushed that revolt with the help of Muslim collaborators. A few sultans had accepted American bribes and had provided troops for the American side. They had done this as a way of settling scores with other sultans.
Independence and Conflict with the Southern Muslims
In 1946 the Philippines became independent, and Manuel Roxas was elected the first president. Roxas tried to unify the country, but his efforts were rejected by the Muslim leaders of Mindanao. They didn’t trust Roxas because he came from a Christian people group on one of the northern islands.
People began migrating to Mindanao from the northern islands in droves after 1946. These newcomers were nominally Christian, and came from people groups who’d embraced the message of the Spanish era Catholic missionaries.
The newcomers often staked out land claims before a region had been opened for settlement by the new Philippine government. On Mindanao many Muslim people groups had no concept of personal land ownership. They considered all land to be owned by the community, and assigned for use to groups by the local village chief. People receiving such land never considered themselves to be the “owners” of it.
Trouble started when settlers took over land that had been claimed by nearby Muslim villages. Armed clashes became a problem. Often the Philippine Army was unable or unwilling to stop the fighting. Both sides began forming militia groups for protection. By the 1960s the situation was out of control.
In 1971 efforts were made to negotiate peace on Mindanao. Peace talks were scheduled to begin in the Muslim town of Manili. But on the appointed day, a “Christian” militia, not diplomats, arrived in Manili. They opened fire killing 75 Muslims, including women and children. Reprisal killings followed the Manili Massacre. The tensions on Mindanao escalated into a full-blown civil war.
In 1972 a military coup turned the Philippines into a dictatorship. President Ferdinand Marcos, elected in 1966, began ruling by decree. That frightened the Muslim leaders of Mindanao. Marcos came from one of the northern island “Christian” people groups. The Muslim leaders feared the coup might be a prelude to genocide. Many Muslim militias banded together to fight the expected “Christian” invasion of Mindanao. That was how the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was formed.
But the MNLF was never able to gain the support of all Muslims on Mindanao. Many militias either left the MNLF or never joined the guerilla group when it became clear that Marcos wasn’t going to launch a war of genocide. The lack of unity prevented a successful war of secession for the people of Mindanao.
In 1986 the People Power Revolution ousted President Marcos and restored democracy to the Philippines. The changed political climate restarted the peace negotiations on Mindanao. Those negotiations split the MNLF into two factions. In 1989 the hard line faction cut their ties with the moderates and formed a group called Abu Sayyaf. In 1996 a Muslim autonomous region was formed in part of Mindanao and the MNLF evolved into a legitimate political party. But Abu Sayyaf continued to commit acts of terror. In recent years ISIS has also become active on Mindanao.
There will be continued unrest on Mindanao until the causes of that unrest have been dealt with. One big cause is the lack of economic opportunity. In the Philippines 10 to 15 families control most of the wealth. A second cause of discontent is cultural insensitivity. Until recently the northern “Christian” people groups in the Philippines made little effort to understand or appreciate the culture of their Muslim neighbors on Mindanao.
by Keith Carey
Dear Praying Friends,
Every time we cover the Philippines I feel a little guilty. We haven’t prayed for the unreached people groups in this country in 15 years. Every June we now pray for spiritually needy people in Southeast Asia. In this issue of the Global Prayer Digest we will concentrate on the Muslims of Mindanao, the most southern island in the Philippine nation.
This country is blessed with a large local mission force that is reaching the Muslims on the island. We don’t hear much about all the effort being made by dedicated believers.
If we publish too much about their work, we might cause security problems. But we did find out about a Filipino pastor, Feliciano “Cris” Lasawang, who gave his life for the gospel last year at the hands of one of Mindanao’s rebel groups. The church planting work is now blossoming. You will read about this work on the first three days of the GPD, thanks to the Morning Star News.
There are numerous rebel groups that each have their own wicked agenda for Mindanao. As usual, innocent people get harmed in the crossfire. Pray for safety for the people who live on this island, as well as for those who boldly take the gospel to this beautiful part of the world.
• Pray that there would be peace on Mindanao. Peace will allow missionaries to spread the message of salvation on that island.
• Pray that the Muslim people of Mindanao would come to see the difference between true faith in Christ and nominal Christianity.
• Pray for the Lord to establish his presence in Mindanao through economic justice.
• Pray for every people group in Mindanao to soon embrace Jesus Christ, the One who is above all political and religious disputes.