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Two people were killed in the Philippines when a grenade was thrown into a mosque in Zamboanga on Wednesday, just three days after two explosions at a cathedral killed at least 21 on the island of Jolo. The attacks come after the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao recently voted ‘yes’ in a referendum to give the region more territory and greater autonomy as part of a peace deal to end decades of conflict. Daesh has claimed responsibility for the attack on the cathedral, according to the Nikkei Asian Review. It is still too early to know who attacked the mosque and why, says the New York Times. There may be further attacks from extremist separatists who seek to disrupt the peace process.
Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippines’ secretary of defense, claimed that it is “unlikely” that the two attacks are related. The government has firmly condemned the attacks and discouraged people from speculating about the motivations of the attacks on social media. Carlito Galvez Jr., President Rodrigo Duterte’s adviser on the peace process, called for “everyone to remain calm and refrain from issuing statements that would fuel discord and animosity among our people.” Zia Alonto Adiong, a politician from the southern Philippines, tweeted a conciliatory message: “Regardless of one’s faith [we] must resist becoming a victim of this vicious cycle of violence these terrorists are now attempting to create … Let us not fall into their trap and give them the satisfaction of turning ourselves [Muslims & Christians] into enemies.”
These two tragic attacks give religious leaders in the Philippines an opportunity to build solidarity between Muslims and Christians. Both groups have been the targets of extremist killings during a time when they should be celebrating the success of the referendum. Christian leaders could organize large prayer groups for the victims of the Mosque attack, and Muslims could do the same for the victims of the Cathedral attack. Prominent Christians could visit the Zamboanga Mosque and potentially the families of victims to publicly express condolences – Muslims could do the same at the Joro cathedral. Conflict can easily tear apart a society’s social fabric, but shared tragedy can bring people together. Framing the attacks as a shared tragedy for Christians and Muslims caused by fringe extremists may be a way to accomplish this during a time when national unity is essential.
The longer any conflict continues, the greater risk there is of extremist elements taking root. The original rebels in Mindanao, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), have wanted greater autonomy since 1969. Most extremist fighters which come from groups aligned with Daesh have only formed in the last decade or so. Had the Philippines government been willing to compromise sooner, much of the conflict may have been avoided and these groups may have never been created. Instead, attacks on civilians continue despite a successful referendum. This shows why it is important to reach compromises early in a conflict, rather than use military force, which risks extending the conflict. So far, the conflict has caused an estimated 100,000 – 150,000 deaths and around 2,000,000 people have been displaced, according to Project Ploughshares.
Regarding the future, it appears the referendum will successfully lead to a larger, more autonomous region for Muslims in the Philippines. If the Filipino people can achieve unity in the face of these recent attacks, there is hope that the cause of the remaining separatist groups will eventually diminish. Until then, it seems that it will take time before lasting peace and stability is attainable in the region.