As Barnabas Fund reported last week on 23 May, around 100 jihadists seized control of the city of Marawi in the Mindanao region of the southern Philippines, causing thousands of residents to flee. According to unconfirmed reports, at least eight Christians, who had been stopped at a jihadist check point, were shot dead by the jihadists for refusing to recite the Islamic creed i.e. for refusing to convert to Islam.
A Christian pastor and several other Christians were taken hostage by the militants, who threatened to kill them unless the government withdraws its forces that are seeking to retake the city. The Christians are still being held and although the government has retaken some of the city, the jihadists linked to Islamic State (IS) still control other parts.
On Wednesday, a pro-Islamic State media channel released a video showing eight Filipino Christians being forcibly converted to Islam by masked gunmen. According to classical Islam, jihadists should first invite non-Muslims to convert to Islam; if the non-Muslims refuse this invitation (like the eight at the check point), then they may be attacked and killed.
There is an immediate cause to this crisis and a longer term build up – and lessons need to be learnt from both. The immediate cause is almost certainly the flood of foreign jihadists into the southern Philippines, many of them likely to be returning from fighting with IS in the Middle East. This is an issue that other countries are likely to face.
However, the Philippines are particularly vulnerable because of the policy of appeasement of Islamists that various governments have pursued in recent years. The south has for many years witnessed acts of jihadi violence carried out by those seeking to make Mindanao an Islamic state governed by sharia. That violence has particularly targeted Christians. In 2012, the government signed a comprehensive peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which was supposed to pave the way for the creation of a semi-autonomous region which could have its own law, a move the Islamists understood as allowing them to impose sharia. However, in parts of this area the majority of the population are Christians who were deeply concerned at being subjected to Islamic law, which was one of the reasons that just before last June’s general election the Philippines parliament failed to pass the law implementing the agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
However, not only was the agreement a concern because it rewarded the jihadists’ violence by giving them some of what they wanted i.e. the ability to impose sharia, but also it was rejected by some of the more extreme jihadi groups such as the Abu Sayyaf group previously linked to al Qaeda and Maute, who want a total capitulation of the government to their Salafist ideology. These groups have formed a loose coalition and affiliated themselves to Islamic State. In November 2016, Maute briefly seized control of the town of Butig just south of Marawi and flew the Islamic State flag from the town hall until the Philippines army regained control after heavy fighting. At the same time they attempted to assassinate the Philippines president in the city of Marwari.
It is clear that what we are seeing is a serious attempt by an IS-linked jihadi group to create an extreme Islamist state in the southern Philippines. What is particularly significant is that local jihadists are now being joined by jihadists from other countries, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia.
This is something that we may well see in other countries, as jihadists who have fought with IS in Iraq and Syria now travel back to the regions that they have come from and fight to impose their radical views, including the specific targeting of Christians. Unfortunately, the Christians currently being held by Maute are unlikely to be the last.