Phillipines Catholics protest deal expanding autonomous region for Muslims


Manila, Aug 5, 2008 / 12:28 am (CNA).- Thousands of Catholics in two southern Philippines cities on Monday demonstrated against a government agreement granting Muslims more territory and political and economic powers. One critic characterized the deal as the building of a "Berlin Wall" in the country and another called it a "virtual declaration" of a new state.

Church bells rung and businesses closed for the protest in the mainly Catholic city of Zamboanga, Reuters says. About 10,000 people, many wearing red shirts to show their opposition, gathered at a demonstration where a Catholic archbishop and a local tribal leader wearing traditional head dress and loin cloth sat beside the city's mayor, Celso Lobregat.

"Do not build a Berlin Wall among the people in Mindanao," Lobregat said in an address to the crowd. "We are also for peace. We don't want the creation of an area based on religion, an area that would segregate us. Christians and Muslims have been living in peace and harmony together in our city."

Around 8,000 people, who wore red shirts and armbands and held placards, also gathered in the city of Iligan in protest.

The agreement between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), reportedly the country's largest Muslim group, extends an existing autonomous region for Muslims and gives them the authority to set up their own system of education, courts, civil service, and control of resources.

It calls for a referendum to be held by next August for over 700 villages in six provinces spread across three islands to determine if residents wish to join the new region.

CBCP News reports that on Saturday North Cotabato's Vice Governor Emmanuel Pinol said the peace negotiators "committed us to an agreement" but "without even the courtesy of showing and explaining to us the provisions [of the agreement]."

Pinol characterized the agreement as "a virtual declaration of a new and distinct state," charging that the government's haste to reach an agreement with the MILF is "actually putting the future of our children in jeopardy."

Alleging that elements in the MILF are linked with Al Qaeda and the radical group Jemaah Islamiya, he questioned whether the establishment of police and armed forces would help their pursuit of an independent Islamic state.

"With the government bent on pressuring us into accepting the terms of an agreement that we have not studied, we will have to rely on ourselves to defend our homes, our families and our communities," Pinol cautioned.

On Monday the country's Supreme Court met to hear petitions from local Catholic politicians to stop the signing of the agreement, which is scheduled to take place Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur, Reuters reports.

The agreement would re-open peace talks to end 40 years of conflict in which more than 120,000 people have been killed and two million displaced. Analysts say a deal could trigger new violence between Catholics and Muslims in the south.

On Sunday Muslim rebels attacked rice-harvesting Catholic farmers in two towns in North Cotabato. A week earlier guerillas burned about 80 houses in the same province.