The Church has provided food and shelter to thousands of evacuees in the southern Philippines after Islamists launched attacks at the end of Ramadan last week.
Militants, thought to be members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), are said to have started shelling military units in the region late on May 21. The mortar shelling then escalated in the following days, with a number of villages reporting civilian deaths in the lead up to the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr on May 23.
The local authorities stated that at least 6,410 residents from the villages of Daplawan, Elian, and Kitango have subsequently been forced to flee their homes to find refuge in neighbouring areas.
Officials from the Archdiocese of Cotabato said that refugees were being sheltered at various churches and schools in the region and that Caritas had been assisting with aid provision.
Fr Clifford Baira, director of the Archdiocese’s Social Action Program for Peace and Justice, told UCA News that they were “feeding thousands of evacuees now, both Christian and Muslims,” stressing that “religion is not the issue now but the safety of all Filipinos”.
In recent years, the southern Philippines has been devastated by Islamist conflicts. In 2014, the BIFF joined forces with Jihadist groups after rejecting a deal that paved the way for a new autonomous region, on the grounds that the deal did not go far enough.
Then, in May 2017, militants waiving ISIS flags occupied the Muslim-majority city of Marawi with the stated aim of establishing a self-governing Islamist regime in the area.
The ensuing military campaign left Marawi in ruins, with over 1,000 dead, 350,000 displaced and reconstruction costs estimated at over $1 billion.
Last week’s attacks came amidst growing concerns that ISIS affiliates were using the shadow of the COVID-19 crisis to re-establish their operations and recruit more fighters.
Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon said that such tactics were a “beastly” betrayal of the Muslim population as they celebrated their most important feast and described the attacks as an “inhuman act of murder in the midst of a pandemic that has caused so much suffering.”
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