Christians in the Philippines suffering new levels of violence and intimidation

Father Sebastiano D'AmbraAid to the Church in Need

Christians in the Philippine island of Mindanao are suffering similar levels violence and intimidation as Christians in Iraq, according to a missionary priest.

In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Father Sebastiano D'Ambra said he feared growing radicalisation in the Philippines after 14 people were murdered on Christmas Day. In one attack, a grenade was thrown at a chapel.

On Christmas Eve alone, Barnabas Fund reported, nine Christians were murdered as 200 Islamist gunmen raided villages in Mindanao.

"In some areas of Mindanao we are experiencing exactly the same thing as is happening in Iraq," said Father D'Ambra.

An Italian missionary of the Pontifical Istitute for Foreign Missions who has been in the Philippines for nearly 50 years, D'Ambra added: "The situation is a worrying one. 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 anti-Christian violence was perpetrated by members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a paramilitary terror group that formed after a split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2008 and in 2014 pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Many Christians were murdered and 10,000 homes destroyed in an attack by the front in 2013.

It used to be customary for Muslims to join in Christmas celebrations with their Christian neighbours in the Philippines, but this is becoming less common as mosque leaders have instructed Muslims not to do this.

Father D'Ambra, who in 1984 founded the Silsilah movement to promote dialogue between Christians and Muslims, said: "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."

He said Christians were now "extremely cautious" around Muslims, some of whom have complained of a local government run by the majority Christian community, which accounts for about seven in ten of the population. Mindanoa, an island in the south of the Philippines, is Muslim-majority over all.

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."