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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor > Releases > International Religious Freedom > 2002 Report on International Religious Freedom > East Asia and Pacific


International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Adherents of all faiths are free to exercise their religious beliefs in all parts of the country without government interference or restriction; however, socioeconomic disparity between the Christian majority and the Muslim minority has contributed to persistent conflict in certain provinces. The principal remaining armed insurgent Muslim group continued to seek greater autonomy or an independent Islamic state. In August 2001, the Government reached agreement with this group to implement a cease-fire. In May 2002, the Government and this group signed an agreement outlining the implementing guidelines on the humanitarian, rehabilitation, and development aspects of the peace process. Militant Muslim splinter groups have engaged in terrorism. Moderate Muslim leaders strongly criticized these tactics.

There is some ethnic and cultural discrimination against Muslims by Christians. This has led some Muslims to seek successfully a degree of political autonomy for Muslims in the southwestern part of the country.

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of approximately 118,000 square miles, and its population is approximately 76.4 million. Over 85 percent of citizens of this former Spanish colony claim membership in the Roman Catholic Church, according to the most recent available official census data on religious preference (1990). The results of the data on religious preference from the 2000 census were not yet available at the end of the period covered by this report. Other Christian denominations together comprise approximately 8.7 percent of the population. Muslims totaled 4.6 percent of the population and Buddhists 0.1 percent. Indigenous and other religious traditions accounted for 1.2 percent of those surveyed. Atheists and persons who did not designate a religious preference accounted for 0.3 percent of the population.

Some academic experts question the accuracy of the statistical sampling in the 1990 census. Some Muslim scholars argue that census takers seriously undercounted the number of Muslims because of security concerns in western Mindanao, where Muslims still are a majority, that often prevented them from conducting accurate counts outside urban areas. Current estimates place the number of Muslims at 5 million, or approximately 7 percent of the population. Muslims reside principally in Mindanao and nearby islands and are the largest single minority religious group in the country.

There is no available data on "nominal" members of religious organizations. Estimates of nominal members of the largest group, Roman Catholics, range from 60 to 65 percent of the total population. These estimates are based on regular church attendance. El Shaddai, a charismatic lay movement affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, has grown rapidly in the last decade; it claims approximately 5 million active members within the country and an additional 300,000 members in other countries.

Most Muslims belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. There is a very small number of Shi'a believers in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur. Approximately 19 percent of the population of Mindanao is Muslim, according to the 1990 census. Members of the Muslim community are concentrated in five provinces of western Mindanao, the only provinces in which they represent the majority: Maguindanao; Lanao del Sur; Basilan; Sulu; and Tawi-Tawi. There also are significant Muslim communities in nearby Mindanao provinces, including Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, (this is a new province, added in 2001, which is located in the middle portion of what was formerly all Zamboanga del Sur), Zamboanga del Norte, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte, and North Cotabato. There are sizable Muslim neighborhoods in metropolitan Manila on Luzon, and in Palawan.

Among Protestant and other Christian groups, there are numerous denominations, including Seventh Day-Adventists, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Assemblies of God, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), and Philippine (Southern) Baptist denominations. In addition, there are three churches established by Filipino religious leaders, the Independent Church of the Philippines or Aglipayan, the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), and the Ang Dating Daan (an offshoot of Iglesia ni Cristo). A majority of the country's nearly 12 million indigenous people reportedly are Christians. However, observers note that many indigenous groups mix elements of their native religions with Christian beliefs and practices.

Christian missionaries work throughout the country, including most parts of western Mindanao, often within Muslim communities.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice, although there were a few exceptions. Although Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, is the dominant religion, there is no state religion, and under the Constitution church and state are separate. The Government generally does not restrict adherents of other religions from practicing their faith.

Organized religions must register with the Securities and Exchange Commission as nonstock, nonprofit organizations and with the Bureau of Internal Revenue to establish their tax-exempt status. There were no reports of discrimination in the registration system during the period covered by this report.

The Government provides no direct subsidies to institutions for religious purposes, including to the extensive school systems maintained by religious orders and church groups. The Office of Muslim Affairs, funded through the Office of the President, generally limits its activities to fostering Islamic religious practices, although it also has the authority to coordinate projects for economic growth in predominantly Muslim areas. The office's Philippine Pilgrimage Authority helps coordinate the travel of religious pilgrimage groups to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, by providing bus service to and from airports, hotel reservations, and guides. The Presidential Assistant for Muslim Affairs helps coordinate relations with countries that have large Islamic populations and that have contributed to Mindanao's economic development and to the peace process with insurgent groups.

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was established in 1990 to respond to Muslim demands for local autonomy in areas where they represent a majority or a substantial minority. In 1996 the Government signed a peace agreement with the Islamic Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), concluding an often violent struggle that lasted more than 20 years. Following the 1996 peace agreement, a largely free, fair, and peaceful plebiscite for an expanded ARMM was held in August 2001 with one additional province, Basilan, and one additional city, Marawi, voting to join the ARMM regional government (which previously had been comprised of Sulu, Tawi Tawi, Lanao del Sur, and Maguindanao).

The Government is working with the MNLF's leaders on a variety of development programs to reintegrate former MNLF fighters into the market economy through jobs and business opportunities. The integration of ex-MNLF fighters into the armed forces and police has been somewhat effective in easing suspicion between Christians and Muslims.

Peace negotiations between the Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the chief remaining armed Muslim separatist group, continued during the period covered by this report. In June 2001, the Government and the MILF agreed to implement a ceasefire; however, intermittent clashes continued. In May 2002, the Government and the MILF signed an agreement outlining guidelines on the humanitarian, rehabilitation, and development aspects of the 2001 peace agreement. Negotiations that could lead to a more formal peace arrangement continue.

In July 2001, President Macapagal-Arroyo issued strict instructions to the military that mosques were not to become targets and no mosques were to be entered in pursuit of suspects.

The teaching of religious classes in public schools is permitted with the written consent of parents, provided that there is no cost to the Government. Based on a traditional policy of promoting moral education, local public schools make available to church groups the opportunity to teach moral values during school hours. Attendance is not mandatory, and various churches rotate in sharing classroom space. In addition, in February 2002, the Department of Education, Culture and Sports (DECS) issued an order directing public schools to allow interested groups to distribute the Bible for free in their schools. In many parts of Mindanao, Muslim students routinely attend Catholic schools from elementary to university level. These students are not required to receive Catholic religious instruction. In November 2001, DECS directed that schools ensure that the religious rights of students are protected, and specifically that Muslim students are allowed to wear their head coverings (hijab), and that Muslim girls not be required to wear shorts during physical education classes. In October 2001, the Philippine Military Academy announced plans to erect a mosque on campus to allow Muslim cadets (10 out of a total student body of 700) a place to worship and to enhance cultural awareness of Islam for all cadets.

There are 1,569 existing Islamic schools (madaris) across the country. Of these, 832 madaris are located in the ARMM, while 737 are located outside the ARMM. Only 35 of the madaris are registered with DECS. This is due in large part to the inability to meet the DECS' accreditation standards for curricula and adequate facilities. President Macapagal-Arroyo has called for the integration of the madrassah schools into the country's national education system. A new program, Education for Peace and Progress in Mindanao, was announced in May 2002, and is to be implemented in the 2002-2003 school year. The program's goal is to integrate madaris into the country's national education system and "to foster religious understanding between the country's Muslim minority and the Christian majority." The five-point program agenda includes information and communications technology, madrassah education, peace education, and Mindanao culture and history. It also includes teacher training. The program is to be used in madaris in the ARMM initially, and eventually in all of the provinces of Mindanao. Some critics have stated that the program violates the prohibition against state-funded promotion of religion.

The Government has declared the Catholic holidays of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, All Saints' Day, and Christmas official holidays. In 2001 President Macapagal-Arroyo also declared the last day of Ramadan, or Eid al-Fitr, to be an official holiday. This declaration prompted a very positive reaction from the Muslim community. In May 2002, a Senate bill was introduced which would permanently create two Muslim national holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al Adha (celebrating the annual pilgrimage to Mecca). The bill had not been passed by the end of the period covered by this report.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Muslims, who are concentrated in many of the most impoverished provinces in the country, complained that the Government has not made sufficient efforts toward economic development in those areas. Some Muslim religious leaders asserted that Muslims suffer from economic discrimination, which is reflected in the Government's failure to provide money to stimulate southwestern Mindanao's sluggish economic development. In the last half of 2001, the Government increased its efforts to stimulate economic development in the south. The Government solicited foreign aid specifically targeted at the ARMM and other areas of Muslim concentration, in part as a means of addressing the terrorist threat. Leaders in both Christian and Muslim communities contend that economic disparities and ethnic tensions, more than religious differences, are at the root of the modern separatist movement that emerged in the early 1970's.

Intermittent government efforts to integrate Muslims into political and economic society have achieved only limited success to date. Many Muslims claim that they continue to be underrepresented in senior civilian and military positions, and have cited the lack of proportional Muslim representation in the national government institutions. At the end of the period covered by this report, there was one Muslim cabinet secretary and two Muslim senior presidential advisors, but there were no Muslim senators or Supreme Court justices. There were 9 Muslims in the 214-member House of Representatives.

The Code of Muslim Personal Laws recognizes the Shari'a civil law system as part of national law; however, it does not apply in criminal matters, and it applies only to Muslims. Some Muslim religious leaders (ulamas) argue that the Government should allow Islamic courts to extend their jurisdiction to criminal law cases. There currently are 14 Shari'a Circuit Court judges and one Shari'a District Court judge. As in other parts of the judicial system, the Shari'a courts suffer from a large percentage of unfilled positions. Some of the ulama also support the MILF's goal of forming an autonomous region governed in accordance with Islamic law.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Prior to the November 2001 elections for ARMM officials, more than 80 persons were killed and many more wounded when MNLF members loyal to outgoing ARMM Governor Nur Misuari attacked an Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) outpost in Sulu. Misuari fled to Malaysia in late November 2001, where he was detained for entering Malaysia illegally; and he was deported to the Philippines in January 2002. From January 2002 to the end of the period covered by this report, Misuari was detained in the Philippines on charges of sedition and rebellion.

Doubts have been raised about the loyalty of some of former MNLF rebels who were integrated ("integrees") into the armed forces and the national police in 2000, as outlined in the 1996 peace agreement between the MNLF and the Government. In the wake of the uprising by Nur Misuari loyalists in November 2001, the Government conducted a loyalty check of integrees. Although no integrees were reported to have been expelled at that time, suspicions lingered. In January 2002, a firefight took place in Jolo, Sulu Island, between police integrees and Armed Forces of the Philippines marines in which 21 persons were killed. Civilians hacked to death three government soldiers the day after the clash. Fifty Muslim integrees were moved from Sulu Island to their headquarters in Maguindanao in an effort to ease tensions. A television reporter, held hostage under suspicious circumstances, claimed upon her release that her kidnapers had been MNLF integrees. Many observers question the veracity of her report.

The profit-oriented terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) claims to seek the immediate establishment of an independent Islamic state in the southwestern part of the country. In fact, however, the ASG is a loose collection of criminal-terrorist gangs, and its religious affiliation is rejected by mainstream Muslim leaders. In late May 2001, the ASG kidnaped 20 hostages, including several foreign nationals. More hostages were taken in June 2001, and several were beheaded by their captors. Most of the hostages were released, amidst allegations that ransom was paid. The U.S. Embassy in Manila stated that on June 7, 2002, two of the three remaining hostages were killed during a rescue attempt; and the third hostage was injured but was recovered by AFP troops and survived. Philippine military officials announced on June 21, 2002, that a high-ranking Abu Sayyaf leader and designated spokesman, Abu Sabaya, had been killed in a firefight with Filipino troops. As of the end of the period covered by this report, Abu Sabaya’s body had not been recovered. Both Philippine and U.S. officials believe Abu Sabaya to be dead based on eyewitness reports that he was shot multiple times and fell into shark-infested waters too deep to be searched thoroughly for remains. Captured Abu Sayyaf guerillas testified that prior to the June 7, 2002 firefight Abu Sabaya had ordered the killing of the three remaining hostages. Although many Muslims believe that discrimination against them is rooted in their religious culture, most do not favor the establishment of a separate state, and the overwhelming majority reject terrorism as a means of achieving a satisfactory level of autonomy. Mainstream Muslim leaders, both domestic and foreign, have criticized strongly the actions of the ASG and its renegade offshoots as "un-Islamic."

The Government placed responsibility on the MILF for mass killings on July 16, 2000, in Bumbaran, Lanao del Sur Province; however after subsequent investigation, the Commission on Human Rights stated that the perpetrators could have been non-MILF separatists posing as MILF members, or may have been renegade former members of the MNLF. MILF soldiers reportedly had forced approximately 33 civilians, all Christians, into a Muslim prayer house in the early morning. After a nearby battle during the day between the MILF and government forces, armed persons fired on the civilians in custody, killing 21 persons and injuring 9 others.

On August 27, 2000, unidentified persons attacked a vehicle and killed 12 passengers, all Muslims, in Carmen, North Cotabato. The Government blamed the MILF, but the provincial governor stated that those responsible may have been civilians seeking revenge on Muslims. The perpetrators have not been found and there were no new steps taken in the case.

President Macapagal-Arroyo briefly declared a "state of lawlessness" in Basilan in July 2001, and gave the military the power to detain suspected Abu Sayyaf members and supporters for 36 hours without an arrest warrant. The military detained 73 Muslim individuals under this authority. Some with names similar to those of Abu Sayyaf members remained in detention at the end of the period covered by this report. Several human rights groups maintain that the detainees are innocent civilians who were targeted because they are Muslim.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversions

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Religious affiliation customarily is a function of a person's family, ethnic group, or tribal membership. Historically, Muslims have been alienated socially from the dominant Christian majority, and there is some ethnic and cultural discrimination against Muslims.

Christian and Muslim communities live in close proximity throughout central and western Mindanao and, in many areas, their relationship is harmonious. However, efforts by the dominant Christian population to resettle in traditionally Muslim areas, particularly over the past 60 years, have brought resentment from some Muslim residents. Muslims view Christian proselytizing as an extension of an historical effort by the Christian majority to deprive them of their homeland and cultural identity as well as of their religion. Christian missionaries work in most parts of western Mindanao, often within Muslim communities.

Although Christian-Muslim relations remained strained, they improved during the period covered by this report, mainly due to such Government actions as the renewed efforts to negotiate with the separatist MILF, the appointment of a Muslim cabinet secretary, the declaration of Eid al-Fitr as a national holiday, and increased assistance to Muslims making the Hajj. However, the Government's crackdown on the terrorist ASG beginning in July 2001 led to accusations by many human rights NGO's of police and military abuses.

The national culture, with its emphasis on familial, tribal, and regional loyalties, creates informal barriers whereby access to jobs or resources is provided first to those of one's own family or group. Some employers have a biased expectation that Muslims have lower educational levels. Muslims report that they have difficulty renting rooms in boarding houses or being hired for retail work if they use their real name or wear distinctive Muslim dress. Some Muslims therefore use a Christian pseudonym and do not wear distinctive dress when applying for housing or jobs. Predominantly Muslim provinces in Mindanao continue to lag behind the rest of the island of Mindanao in almost all aspects of socioeconomic development.

Religious dialog and cooperation among the country's various religious communities generally are amicable. Many religious leaders are involved in ecumenical activities and also in interdenominational efforts to alleviate poverty. The Interfaith Group, which is registered as a NGO, includes Roman Catholic, Islamic, and Protestant church representatives who have joined together in an effort to support the Mindanao peace process through work with communities of former combatants. Besides social and economic support, the Interfaith Group seeks to encourage Mindanao communities to instill their faiths in their children.

Amicable ties among religious groups are reflected in many nonofficial organizations. The leadership of human rights groups, trade union confederations, and industry associations represent many religious persuasions.

The Bishops-Ulamas Conference, which meets monthly to deepen mutual doctrinal understanding between Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders in Mindanao, helps further the Mindanao peace process. The convenors of the conference are the Archbishop of Davao, Ferdinand Capalla, the President of the Ulama Association, Majid Mutilan, and Bishop Hilario Gomez. The conference seeks to foster exchanges at the local level between parish priests and local Islamic teachers. Paralleling the dialog fostered by religious leaders, the Silsila Foundation in Zamboanga City hosts a regional exchange among Muslim and Christian academics and local leaders meant to reduce bias and promote cooperation. Other active groups include the Mindanao State University Peace Institute, the Ranao-Muslim Christian Movement for Dialogue, the Peace Advocates of Zamboanga, the Ateneo Peace Institute, and the Peace Education Center of the Notre Dame University.

In October 2001, 85 Christians and 23 Muslims participated in a Youth Peace Camp. The camp was organized by school teachers in Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte. At the conclusion of the camp, participants stated that they felt that the conflict in Mindanao is not religious, but rather economic in nature, and that it could only be resolved by respect, justice, and trust.

The Government's National Ecumenical Commission (NEC) fosters interfaith dialog among the major religious groups--the Roman Catholic Church, Islam, Iglesia ni Cristo, the Philippine Independent Church (Aglipayan), and Protestant denominations. The Protestant churches are represented in the NEC by the National Council of Churches of the Philippines and the Council of Evangelical Churches of the Philippines. Members of the NEC met periodically with the President to discuss social and political questions.

The International Association for Religious Freedom has a regional office in Manila, and the International Religious Liberty Association held its World Congress on Religious Freedom in June 2002.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Embassy staff members have met with representatives of all major faiths to learn about their concerns on a variety of issues. In addition, the U.S. Government supports the Government's peace process with Muslim insurgents in Mindanao, which has the potential to contribute to a better climate for interfaith cooperation.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budgeted $40.6 million for grant assistance to Mindanao in 2002. Much of this is targeted towards the poorest regions of Muslim Mindanao. USAID operates the Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM) program, which supports conflict resolution mechanisms and seeks to improve governance and education in the ARMM. The Livelihood Enhancement and Peace Program (LEAP) assists in the reintegration of 25,000 former Muslim combatants and provides development assistance to hundreds of communities in MNLF areas.

During the period covered by this report, the Embassy sent both Muslim and Catholic leaders to International Visitor Programs in the United States. Participants in one three-week program examined the U.S.'s commitment to religious freedom, and explored ways in which religious diversity enhances public policy debate and contributes to the development of stable communities in the U.S. Other religious leaders from Mindanao participated in a 4-week International Visitor Program on "Conflict Resolution and Development." The Philippine International Visitor Alumni Association established its own working group focusing on peace and Muslim-Christian relations.

The Embassy also brought several prominent U.S. citizens to the country to give talks and to participate in discussions on religious freedom. In October 2001, a professor from one U.S. university spoke to numerous audiences on the topic of conflict resolution and cross-cultural understanding for 1 week.

Released on October 7, 2002

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