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Christian Communities Cautious on Philippines Peace Deal (UPDATED)

Agreement hopes to end disputes between Filipino government and Muslim separatists.

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect that shari'ah law will not apply to Christians living in Bangsamoro.)

A major turning point in tense Muslim-Christian relations in the southern Philippines may be at hand following a recent announcement from President Benigno S. Aquino III.

Aquino recently announced that the Southeast Asian archipelago's national government has signed a peace accord with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a major Muslim separatist group. For many years, separatist rebels have been fighting a violent war for independence for the Muslim-dominated island of Mindanao.

Now, the recent agreement will establish an area called Bangsamoro, which will still be subject to the Philippine constitution but will be governed by shari'ah law rather than the nation's Civil Code. However, shari'ah will not apply to Christians and other non-Muslims living in the area.

The agreement to create an autonomous, Muslim region has been welcomed by religious leaders, including Basilan bishop Martin Jumoad, whose southern diocese has one of the highest Christian populations. Jumoad said the accord is a step toward peace if it helps foster respect for Christians in the nation's south. Several human rights groups reported in July that the Philippines is "one of the most dangerous places for foreign missionaries."

But other groups are concerned about what this new development means for religious liberty. Not only could the government exchange religious freedom for "tenuous peace," but another separatist group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), says it will cause unrest if the current agreement moves forward. MNLF leaders say the recent peace accord violates a failed agreement between MNLF and the government in 1996.

The peace agreement, which will be enacted over the course of two years, still needs to pass the nation's congress before it can be begin.

CT has reported ongoing violence against Christians in the Philippines since 2000, including the kidnapping of an Italian priest in 2007.

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