Sunday, December 10, 2017

Philippines: Bangsamoro Basic Law Looms Over Mindanao

By Elizabeth Kendal,
Religious Liberty Monitoring, 11 Dec 2017

As the Battle for Marawi City comes to an end the struggle for Mindanao heats up.

As would be expected, ISIS and its affiliates are busy regrouping and recruiting across western Mindanao. Having looted thousands of homes and emptied all Marawi’s banks they are now offering recruits a “sign-up purse” (one-off payment) with the promise of further payments and benefits if they join a battlefront. The recruiters target displaced Muslims and Islamist sympathisers, many of whom are furious about the physical destruction of Marawi City which they blame on the Philippine military. Rommel Banlaoi from the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research warns that cashed-up “sleeper cells are everywhere”. 

But transnational jihadists, in particular Islamic State (IS/ISIS) and its affiliates and sympathisers, are not the only ones seeking to exploit the Marawi crisis.

As should be expected, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is also busy, exploiting the Marawi crisis for political gain. MILF’s efforts and aims, along with the implications for Christians, are the focus of this posting.

See also: Philippines: Battle for Mindanao far from over, 
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) 435, 6 December 2017



On 2 September 1996, the Government of the Republic of Philippines (GRP) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed a peace deal which established the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The deal was supposed to end more than two decades of civil war. However, the more hardline Islamist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rejected the agreement. Reiterating the demand for an independent Islamic State, MILF continued the fight/jihad. 

On 27 March 2014, the Government of the Republic of Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), negating the GRP’s agreement with MNLF. Under the terms of the CAB, the MNLF-ruled ARMM would be abolished and replaced with an expanded and MILF-ruled Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (or Bangsamoro Judicial Entity). The deal was supposed to end nearly four decades of civil war. However, the even more hardline Islamist Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) rejected the agreement. Reiterating the demand for an independent Islamic State, BIFF continued the fight/jihad.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) is one of ten “fighting battalions” in the Philippines to have subsequently pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Other groups includes “a portion or all of the ASG [Abu Sayyaf Group] . . . Ansar Khilafah in the Philippines, Katibat Ansar al Sharia, Katibat Marakah al Ansar, the Islamic State in Lanao, Jund al Tawhid (a former ASG battalion), Jamaat al Tawhid wal Jihad (a group formerly loyal to al Qaeda), and parts of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).” (Caleb Weiss, Long War Journal, 12 June 2016)

After signing the CAB, the GRP and MILF drafted the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which would establish the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (also known as the Bangsamoro Judicial Entity) in Mindanao under MILF rule. However, progress of the bill stalled in Congress in late January-February 2016 after a violent clash between Philippine elite police and MILF forces in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, left 44 police commandos, 17 MILF fighters and three civilians dead. 

Isnilon Hapilon (second from left)
plotting the siege of Marawi.
(AFP forces killed Hapilon on 16 Oct 2017).
Having pledged allegiance to ISIS in January 2016 on behalf of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Isnilon Hapilon subsequently defected from the ASG and joined Islamic State, becoming the group’s first Emir for South East Asia. From his hideout in the 99.6 percent Muslim city of Marawi, Haplion plotted an Islamic State take-over of Marawi City. The plan was to establish Marawi as the capital of an ISIS wilayat (province) in South East Asia, much like Raqqa in Syria, or Mosul in Iraq. He was confident the local Muslims would not resist.

On 23 May 2017 the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) moved to arrest Hapilon. But the raid was botched and jihadists from various pro-ISIS groups flooded into the city to fight the AFP causing all hell to break loose


After the events of 1979 – specifically the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Siege of Mecca in Saudi Arabia – the regional trend of Islamic revival went global. As Shi’ite Iran strove to establish its ascendancy in and across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia got busy “Wahhabising” (often referred to as “radicalising”) the world’s Sunni Muslims so as to bring them in line with Islamic fundamentalist Saudi Arabian Wahhabi doctrine. In this the Saudis have been phenomenally successful. From Morocco to Mindanao, Sunni Muslims have submitted to Arabisation and become more fundamentalist as Sunni Muslims. African and Asian Muslim women who never wore veils now do, religiously. Muslims who never resisted non-Muslim leaders now reject them, religiously, as occurred in Jakarta, Indonesia, last year. [See: Indonesia: Ahok’s ‘Blasphemy’, by Elizabeth Kendal, Religious Liberty Monitoring, 29 Nov 2016].

Still, political elites continue to blame radicalisation on its victims; in this case, on the Philippine government whose failure to pass and enact the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is said to have left Mindanao’s Muslims not only frustrated but vulnerable to manipulation by jihadist groups such as ISIS.

“We live in very dangerous times,” said MILF chairman Al Haj Ebrahim Murad on 17 July as a new BBL drafted by a panel of representatives from government, the MILF and religious groups, was submitted to the president.  “We watch with utter disgust of the destruction that violent extremism has inflicted in the city of Marawi. These misguided people have filled the vacuum created by our failure to enact the basic law and (they) feed into the frustration of our people.”

Front row centre: President Duterte
Front left: Murid (MILF Chair)
Front right:  Jaafar (MILF Vice-Chair)
Convinced that ISIS had exploited the government’s failure to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), President Duterte vowed on Monday 17 July, to expedite the passage of the BBL. “May I say to you my brothers . . . I will support and hasten this instrument as it goes to the legislature,” Duterte said in a ceremony for the handover of the bill, drawing loud applause.

In a 17 July interview with Reuters in Cotabato City, Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s top peace negotiator said he feared the Marawi siege could complicate the passage of the law if there was a perception that the MILF and the radical Maute group fighting in Marawi were associated with each other because both hail from the same region.

Concern over perceptions may well have been at the forefront of MILF’s thinking when it decided in August to take up arms against the pro-ISIS BIFF jihadists wreaking havoc across the MILF heartland of Maguindanao province.

Bong S Sarmiento reports from Maguindanao for Asia Times Online (1 Oct): “MILF is fast emerging as a local counterforce to that threat [i.e. BIFF], an ironic voice of moderation after plunging the region into decades of debilitating civil war. ‘Violent extremism is not acceptable in Islam,’ Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s peace implementing panel chair, said in a recent statement.

MILF fighters and flag
“In August, the MILF dusted off its rusting guns to launch an offensive against the IS-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the little-known Jamaatul Muhajiren Wal-Ansar in Mindanao’s violence-prone Maguindanao province, the MILF’s strategic hub located about four hours away from Marawi.”

As Sarmiento notes, “It’s not altogether clear if the MILF’s motivations for launching the fight are driven more by political, religious, tactical or personal imperatives. While certain MILF members have known ties to the IS-linked Maute Group, including through marriage, MILF leaders have been consistently critical of the Maute Group’s IS-inspired scorched earth tactics.”

Considering the years of carnage and suffering the MILF has inflicted on the people of Mindanao, I think we can say its criticism is hypocritical, its actions are strategic, and its motivations political.


Carolyn O. Arguillas reports for MindaNews (26 Nov): “With only nine session days left from November 27 until the two houses of Congress go on recess on December 16, no Bangsamoro law will be passed by year end as originally envisioned by the Duterte administration’s Bangsamoro Peace and Development Roadmap approved in July 2016.”

Lanao del Sur Rep. Mauyag Papandayan, Jr., chair of the Committee on Muslim Affairs told MindaNews, that the new target for passing the law is March 2018. Committee hearings will start in the first week of December, after which Congress goes on recess from December 16 to January 14. When Congress resumes there will be public hearings, followed by committee deliberations then plenary session. “Hopefully,” he said, “by March tapos na’ (it’s done).”

Once the BBL is ratified, the President will appoint the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority which will rule in the ARMM until the 80-seat Assembly is elected in 2022.

Map courtesy Stratfor Intelligence, 2014


The full text of the Draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), as submitted to the president on 17 July 2017 can be found HERE.

The Articles that will cause the greatest concern among Christians and other non-Muslims will be Article III (3) which deals with territory; and Article X (10) which deal with the judicial system.


As would be expected in an Islamic sub-state, the justice system will consist of Shari’ah law and Shari’ah courts. The system will be backed up by a Shari’ah Academy which will not simply teach courses in Islamic law, but “develop the curricula, textbooks, and learning materials of schools and universities in the Bangsamoro” (Article 10, section 22. page 54).

Hudud will apply (section 4): “Under Shari’ah, the penalties for Hudud, plural for Hadd (capital crime) which are seen as crimes against Allah (God), and Qisas, which are crimes against persons, are imposed in the Qur’an.”

Theoretically the Shari’ah judicial system will only apply to Muslims “who voluntarily submit to the Shari’ah Court”. Theoretically indigenous (Lumad) rights and religious freedom will be respected.  Theoretically, Shari’ah will not be applied to non-Muslims, national laws will still apply, and all courts will be under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the Philippines.

However, as anyone familiar with the situation in Northern Nigeria, Aceh, or even Malaysia knows, it never actually works out that way. It is highly likely that any Muslim who refuses to “voluntarily submit to the Shari’ah Court” will be accused of being apostate. The Shari’ah prohibition on apostasy (leaving Islam) means all Muslims in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region will lose their religious freedom. According to Shari’ah, children inherit their faith from their father. If a Muslim man cannot convert, then he cannot raise his children as Christians. In line with this, Shari’ah prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men. If a Muslim woman cannot convert, then she cannot marry a Christian man and raise Christian children.  And while cases could theoretically be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court of the Philippines, not many Filippinos will have the funds for that. When similar cases have been tried in Malaysia and Egypt, the Supreme Court ruled that apostasy falls under the jurisdiction of the Shari'ah Court, making the constitution nothing more than a mirage. 

Further to this,  imposition of Muslim rule and legitimisation of Islamic law tends to elevate Islamic zeal and inflame feelings of Muslim supremacism. It is generally the case that Muslims in newly Islamised states become less tolerant and increasingly expect Christians to live as dhimmis, second class citizens, humiliated and subjugated under Islam.


The most disturbing aspect of Article III is the potential for perpetual expansion.

Once enacted by Congress and signed into law by the president, the BBL will be submitted to the people for ratification in a plebiscite. All registered voters in the core territory will be able to vote. Generally speaking, Christians are a minority across the region, so their vote will not save them from inclusion in the MILF-ruled Islamic sub-state.

However, Local Government Units (LGUs) that are outside the core territory but contiguous to it, will be able to participate in the plebiscite if they can submit a petition signed by 10 percent of registered voters. Then, if a majority of voters give approval through the plebiscite the LGU will be incorporated into the Bangasmoro Autonmous Region.

Further to this, Article XV (15) section 4 (page 100) of the BBL allows for “periodic plebiscites” to be held every five years over a period of 25 years. By this means, LGUs that were not able to join the BAR previously, will have an opportunity to join subsequently.

Surely this raises the prospect of perpetual territorial expansion. Surely this is a recipe for intense Islamic pressure and even ethnic-religious cleansing.


Writing for MindaNews (19 Aug), Antonio G. M. La ViƱa comments: “As envisioned, the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity is not merely an expanded version of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the status of its relationship with the national government being fundamentally different from that of the ARMM. Indeed, BJE is a state in all but name as it meets the criteria of a state laid down in the Montevideo Convention, namely, a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and a capacity to enter into relations with other states.”


At this point in time the BBL is still just a proposal. Congress will struggle to produce a final product that is both constitutional and acceptable to the MILF. If the BBL is challenged in the Supreme Court and found to be unconstitutional – as happened in 2008 with the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) on Ancestral Domain – then conflict may well resume, just as it did in 2008. And if conflict does resume, then the MILF may even re-think its relationship with ISIS.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Iraq: Assyrians at risk as Kurds 'play with fire'

by Elizabeth Kendal

The Assyrians are a Christian nation and the indigenous people of Northern Iraq. Between June-August 2014, ISIS (and subsequently IS) drove more than 130,000 Assyrians from their homes in Mosul and the Assyrian heartland of the Nineveh Plains. Traumatised and destitute, most found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan; particularly in Dohuk (to the north) and in Erbil, the Kurdish capital (to the east). With the Iraqi Army in a state of collapse, the Kurds moved quickly to occupy and defend oil-rich Kirkuk (formerly under the control of Baghdad).

This year, a coalition led by the Iraqi Army and aided by Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs, mostly Iranian-led Shi’ite militias formed to fight ISIS in June 2014 in the wake of the Iraqi Army’s collapse), along with US-backed Kurdish peshmerger forces and Assyrian units, has liberated Mosul and much of the Nineveh Plains. As Assyrians tentatively trickle back into their towns and villages, they do so with the hope that the Nineveh Plains might one day be an autonomous entity within the state of Iraq. The last thing they want is to fall victim to a Kurdish land grab, or to find themselves stuck in the middle of another war.

Assyrians return to Qaraqosh, Palm Sunday 2017.
Report and images by Open Doors
more images: al-arabiya, from Oct 2016


Absent a miracle, Iraqi Kurds will hold a referendum on independence on Monday 25 September. While the anticipated “YES” vote will not trigger an automatic declaration of independence, it is expected to lead to official negotiations.

Analysts suspect that Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani is focused less on Kurdish independence (which he knows in not feasible) and more on acquiring leverage to aid negotiations over revenue sharing (more money), further devolution of power (more power), and the demarcation of Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders (more land).
For more on this see: 
Kurdistan’s referendum won’t lead to independence – so why hold it?
The Conversation, 15 June 2017

If the referendum is little more than a ploy for leverage, then it remains to be seen if it will be worth the risk. Fresh talk of Kurdish independence has sent tensions soaring both inside Iraq and across the region. As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi noted on 16 September, the Kurds are “playing with fire”. 


Eager to expand its borders, the KRG aim to include “disputed territories” in the referendum; including the Nineveh Plains, Sinjar and oil-rich Kirkuk.

Nineveh Plains region (the Assyrian heartland) is marked with a Cross.

Despite pressure from Kurd and pro-Kurd authorities, virtually all Assyrians oppose the referendum and don’t want their lands included. As noted by Assyrian Democratic Movement deputy secretary-general Imad Yohanna, “Most of Iraq’s Christian community opposes a regional referendum. We reject this referendum; we don’t view it as beneficial to our people’s future. Holding a referendum in areas to which they [Assyrian Christians] have yet to return would be an injustice and an exploitation of internally displaced people.”

An Assyrian militia known as the Babylon Brigade released a statement accusing some Christian politicians of supporting the referendum for personal gain; and insisting that the referendum not be “imposed on Christians and other residents living in Nineveh Plains by means of collections of signatures obtained under intimidation”. With some 12,000 Kurdish peshmerger currently deployed across the Nineveh Plains, ostensibly to maintain order but also to reign in dissent, Assyrians have good reason to feel anxious.

Meanwhile, fearing Shi’ite power, Nineveh’s Sunni Arabs support Kurdish independence and do want to be included.

Outside of Nineveh Province, Iraq’s minority Sunnis are mostly opposed Kurdish independence, aware it would leave them more marginalised than ever.


In a move destined to destabilise the whole region, Dr. Najmaldin Karim – the Kurdish governor of oil-rich Kirkuk (which was controlled by Baghdad until Kurdish forces seized it in the chaos of August 2014) – has declared that Kirkuk will participate in the referendum.

On Tuesday 12 September, Iraq’s central government passed a resolution opposing the proposed referendum and authorising Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “take all measures” necessary to preserve the unity of Iraq.

On 14 September the Iraqi parliament voted to remove Karim from his post. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) responded by announcing it was ending its partnership with Baghdad. Karim, meanwhile, is ignoring the order to step down as governor.

Further to this, Hamdi Malik reports for Al-Monitor: “The Imam Ali Division, an armed Shiite faction in Iraq backed by Iran and very close to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, warned Sept. 3 that it will attack Kirkuk if the city is annexed to Kurdistan or to whatever independent state that might be established as a result of the referendum. The division’s spokesman, Ayoub Faleh (also known as Abu Azrael), hinted that Iran has given the unit the green light to attack Kirkuk if it decides to secede from Iraq. . .

“Hadi al-Amiri, secretary-general of the Badr Organization, an Iraqi political party close to Iran, said his group also will take up arms if Kurdish parties pursue their separatist projects. . .

“Iran,” explains Malik, “is fiercely opposed to Kurdistan’s independence projects, including the referendum, and is particularly against Kirkuk’s participation. . .

“Maysam Behravesh, an expert on international relations at Sweden’s University of Lund, told Al-Monitor by phone, ‘Given Iran’s troubled history with Kurds inside and outside of its territory, it will not tolerate a newborn Kurdish independent state, and one presumably close to its arch-foe Israel at that. . . I think if the Kurds either declare independence or take Kirkuk out of Iraqi hands, Iran will be unlikely to intervene directly to oppose or reverse these moves. Yet it will probably act by proxy and unleash its Shia paramilitary forces against the Kurdistan government.”

Kurds across region
Like Iran, Turkey also opposes the referendum on the grounds that it could embolden its own restive Kurdish minorities. In what can only be seen as a strong message to the KRG, the Turkish Armed Forces staged military exercises on 18 September, outside the town of Silopi, which sits less than 10 km from the intersection of Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq, close to the Habur border crossing with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Barin Kayaoglu surmised for Al-Monitor, that with approximately 100 tanks, armored personnel carriers and self-propelled artilleries participating in the drill, “The timing and venue of the exercises leave little doubt that Ankara is displeased with the Sept. 25 independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Turkish pro-government media has been spreading the unsubstantiated rumour (fake news) that Israel – the only state in the region to support Kurdish independence – plans to resettle some 200,000 Jewish Israelis of Kurdish origin into Iraqi Kurdistan should it become independent. The Israeli Embassy in Ankara had to be evacuated on Friday 15 September as supporters of an ultra-nationalist party demonstrated outside against the alleged Zionist plot to create a “second Israel” in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish US is opposed to the referendum on the grounds that it will weaken Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to the benefit of Iran ahead of the April 2018 general elections.

Many Kurds too are opposed to the referendum, primarily because they sense this is simply not the right time for such a provocative move.

While lamenting Iraq’s deep wounds, Juliana Taimoorazy, head of the Illinois-based Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC), echo that concern: “This is not the time for a referendum. Most of our [Assyrian] people in Iraq and in the Diaspora want Iraq to stay intact . . . We are worried, if this goes through, we will be subjected again to another war that will be by Turkey or Iran attacking the Kurds.’


The seriousness of the situation is reflected in the frantic efforts underway to try and convince KRG President Massoud Barzani to cancel or indefinitely postpone the referendum. To that end, Barzani has received visits from Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT); Qasem Soleimani, chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force; and Brett McGurk, the US special anti-IS envoy, who was accompanied by US Ambassador Douglas Silliman.

Soleimani reportedly threatened senior Kurdish officials, saying: “Until now, we have held back the [Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)] from attacking, but I will not bother to do that anymore. Just look at Mandali and what happened there. That is the beginning."  Al-Monitor explains that Soleimani was referring to an incident on 11 September, in which a group of over a hundred Iranian-backed Iraqi militia fighters arrived in the disputed sub-district of Mandali in Diyala province, 100 km northeast of Baghdad, and forced the Kurdish head of the town’s council out of his job and announced that the town will not be included in the Kurdistan referendum.

However, it has all been to no avail. On Sunday 17 September, the KRG’s High Referendum Council, headed by Barzani, voted to reject the US-backed alternative and press ahead with the 25 September referendum on independence as planned.


Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako has issued an urgent appeal, calling on Erbil and Baghdad to “resume dialogue with courage”.

He laments that “some have already started playing the war drums,” noting, “If there were a new military conflict, the consequences would be disastrous for everyone, and minorities would always be the ones to pay a high price . . .

"Everyone,” he said, “should be aware of the seriousness of the situation and hurry to support national reconciliation and peace before it is too late.”


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).