MARAWI CITY, Philippines/MANILA (Reuters) - When a small army of militants allied to Islamic State took over parts of Marawi City in the southern Philippines last month, many of the country’s Muslims were alarmed.
Although the Christian-majority Philippines has endured bouts of insurrection by Muslim groups for centuries, the two communities mostly live together peacefully. Now, many Muslims say, the vicious urban battle with government forces for control of Marawi may intensify the divide.
Civilians who have fled the fighting say the militants spread rumors on social media and by word of mouth that Christian soldiers were committing excesses against the largely Muslim population, and urged locals to take up arms.
“They are using the discrimination, neglect and social injustices against us, the minority, to sow hate and anger,” said Musa Diamla, a member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a rebel group that has signed a ceasefire with the government.
Nearly 400 people have been killed in the month-long battle in Marawi, which is on the Philippines’ southernmost island, Mindanao, which is roughly the size of South Korea and where more than 20 percent of the population are Muslims.
Islam has even older roots in the Philippines than Christianity. When Spanish colonialists landed in the country in the mid-16th century and pushed Muslims to the south, they called them Moros, from the Spanish word for Moors.
For hundreds of years, the Moro people resisted Manila’s rule and the term ‘Bangsamoro’ - meaning ‘nation of Moros’ - was coined in the second half of the 20th century as many sought and fought for independence, or at least autonomy.
Multiple peace pacts with Moro groups have since collapsed or run into delays, consigning Mindanao to economic neglect and poverty, and fuelling a culture of insurgency and banditry.
“Reforms have not taken root in the south due to conflict driven by the Moro struggle for self determination,” said Julkipli Wadi, former dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies at Manila’s University of the Philippines.
“As the peace process dragged on indefinitely, this created frustration for the Moro youth and this is the reason they are prone to embrace radical ideology,” he said.
The Philippines’ constitution provides for the free exercise of religious profession and worship, and the country does not rank among those most often criticized by Western governments and rights groups for violations of religious freedom.
In Quiapo, a teeming and rundown district of the capital, Manila, Christians and Muslims live peacefully alongside each other, worshipping at an ancient church and an imposing mosque that are just a few blocks apart.
“We live in harmony,” said Rohaina Babar, a 40-year-old Muslim woman who sells clothes from one of Quiapo’s many street stalls that offer everything from headscarves to pirated DVDs.
Based on 2010 census data, 94 percent of the Philippines’ Muslim population of over 5 million live on Mindanao, but more than 100,000 are in Manila, many of them Moros who left the south to escape poverty and violence.
Some Muslims in Quiapo worry that the bonhomie of different faiths could be at risk as the death toll among troops fighting in Marawi, now at 70, climbs.
Anxious to nip religious tensions in the bud, the military appealed to the public this month not to share video images of the militants destroying religious statues and pulling down a cross inside a church.
Babar said that comments she reads on social media and in the news were becoming increasingly anti-Muslim.
“It’s like they equate Muslims with terrorists,” she said.
Despite the appearance of equality and tolerance in Quiapo, however, Muslim leaders say discrimination against people of their faith is ingrained in the Philippines.
Paisalin Tago, a commissioner at the National Commission on Muslim Filipino, an agency under the office of the president, said Muslims are under-represented in senior government and military positions. In elections last year, only 11 Muslims were voted to the 292-member House of Representatives, low compared to the community’s 5-6 percent portion of the 100 million population.
“In some agencies, if they find out you are Muslim, they won’t accept you although you are qualified for the position,” said Tago, a Muslim, noting his agency is flooded with job applications from Muslims who cannot find work in other government offices.
Jesus Dureza, the presidential adviser on the peace process in Mindanao, said he could not comment since he had “no specific information on those complaints”.
He acknowledged that Muslims had some reason to be aggrieved but said there is a peace and development roadmap for the region that will address historical injustices.
In Mindanao, the sense of injustice is felt more keenly.
Former rebel Diamla said Moro people used to be the majority in Mindanao, but over the past half century Christians have migrated from the north and grabbed much of their land.
“Historical social injustice is being used as a platform by extremists to recruit and fan anger,” said Zia Alonto-Adiong, a local politician in Lanao del Sur region, which includes Marawi.
Abdulgani Ali, who owns shops in Marawi and nearby Iligan City, said there is less resentment of Christian neighbors than there is of the government for neglecting Muslim livelihoods.
“Where are the schools, roads and development projects?” he said. “They are all in non-Muslim areas and that’s why we still have a low literacy rate and higher poverty incidence.”
Official statistics show that 48.2 percent of families in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which includes Marawi, were below the poverty line in 2015 compared with a national average of 16.5 percent. The poverty line is defined at $180 per month for a family of five.
The region’s secondary-school enrolment rate and its literacy rate are the lowest in the country.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who was for many years the mayor of Mindanao’s biggest city, Davao, pledged last year to devolve power from “imperial Manila” to long-neglected provinces.
But Zia said Duterte’s plan for a federal system has only delayed progress towards peace with Moro insurgents, encouraging the emergence of “a generation of disgruntled young Muslims”.
Writing and additional reporting by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan