Causes of Conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Philippines

by Mr. Victor

Part 1, 2005_07_04


We live in a pluralistic world. We also live in a conflict-torn world. Sad to say that some of these conflicts have been abetted if not aggravated by religions, flaring up in open armed conflicts and bloody repression as in Indonesia between Muslims and Christians; the bloody civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Tamil Hindu minority since 1983 in Sri Lanka; the communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in India; and, recently in Southern Thailand between its military and Muslim militants.[1] In my own Philippine context we too have our share of open armed conflicts and bloody repression. The conflicts in Mindanao have been portrayed as Christian-Muslim conflicts.

The challenge now is how to build a sense of community that goes beyond the traditional boundaries of clan, tribe, status, class, region and religion. A community with which each member and group can identify themselves, in which different groups feel responsible for resolving disputes and solving problems through joint action and dialogue and whose destiny, therefore, each can regard as its own.

One of the steps to overcome the deadly and violent inter-religious conflicts is to know the root causes of these conflicts. In the Philippine context only three root causes of conflicts between Christians and Muslims will be mentioned namely: Colonization, Marginalization of the Minority and Violent Religious Traditions.

History of Colonization[2]

Racially, Christian Filipinos and Muslim Moros[3] in the Philippines are one people. The cultural and economic, differences that have created so much enmity and misunderstanding as to cause Christians and Muslims to regard themselves as separate peoples have their roots in our colonial history

The Christian-Muslim conflicts in the Philippines could be traced in the history of colonization which begun in the 16th century when Spanish colonizers arrived in 1521. At the time of, Spanish conquest, the Muslims of Mindanao and Sulu had already attained a higher level of social organization than the small, scattered communities of Visayas and Luzon. For this reason, it was relatively easy for the Spaniards to subdue and Christianize ‘the inhabitants of Luzon and Visayas. The defeated of Rajah Solayman by Spanish conquistadors sent by Legaspi in the Battle of Bangkusay (Tondo) on June 3, 1571 marked the end of the Islamic influence in Luzon and the Visayas. Whereas the Moros if Mindanao  continued to defy the Spanish Conquistadores.

In the four (4) centuries that followed, the Spanish colonizers successfully stopped the influence of Islam in the Northern and Central parts of the archipelago. Culturally, pacification was abetted by the Christianization of the islands to oppose to the continued influence of Islam. The Spanish colonizers molded the minds and hearts of the natives or indios into their own image as part of their pacification campaign. Thus a good native or indio is a good Hispanized Catholic. Ideologically the natives began to internalize the biases of the Spanish colonizers against the Muslims such as that Moros are traitors, dirty, enemies of the Church, etc.

In addition the Spaniards conscripted Christianized indios[4] as auxiliary troops to help in the pacification campaign. Thousands of Christian indios were brought into the battles. The Moros, on the other hand, raided Spanish held territories especially the coastal resettlements populated by Christianized native. The war and raids planted the seed of animosity and distrust. The conflict brought by the Spanish colonizers led Muslims Moros and Christian Filipinos to see each other as enemy.

But the Spaniards were never completely successful in dislodging Islamic influence. In the southern region of the archipelago, the island of Mindanao which was most protected by its proximity to the source of the older influence -- the culture of Islam -- the efforts were futile.  History books tell us that it was only after 300 years in the 1800’s that the Spanish were able to harbor enough strength in Mindanao to set up military garrisons in the Sulu areas, but they continued to struggle in establishing political hegemony over the Island.

Although the Muslims were able to maintain their independence, centuries of fighting off Spanish military expeditions were a drain on their society’s material and human resources. Moreover, the Spaniards succeeded in isolating them and preventing them from engaging in trade ‘with neighboring ‘countries which had ‘been the foundation of their prosperity in the past. The Muslim communities stagnated and even regressed.”

In 1898 the Christianized indios calling themselves Filipinos launched a revolution against the Spaniards under the leadership of Andres Bonifacio of the Katipunan. It was long and bloody struggles which culminated in the declaration of independence from Spain by Pres. Emilio Aguinaldo on June 12. The Moros of Mindanao took the opportunity to reassert their authority over the region vacated by the Spaniards. But the representatives of the Philippine revolutionary government had difficulty in asserting their authority in Mindanao. Conflicts between the Moros and the Filipinos began to emerge in some areas in Mindanao. 

The Spaniards were losing the war against the Filipinos. But a new foreign power entered the scene: the United States. The Americans came because they were at war with Spain. They did not come to assist the Filipinos in their struggles for independence. They came to wage war against the Spanish forces in the Philippines. When they enlisted the support of the Filipino forces in the war against the Spaniards in the Philippines it was for a tactical reason. 

Soon after Spanish War, the United States decided to assume control of the Philippines archipelago which led to the Philippine declaration of war against the Americans in 1898. The United States realized it faced fierce resistance from the Filipinos of Luzon and Visayas. However the Americans learned that the Moros in Mindanao were distrustful of the Filipino Christians. The Americans decided to exploit this to prevent the Moros from joining forces with the Philippine Revolutionary Government. Thus, on August 20, 1899, US General John C. Bates and the Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram II signed the Kiram-Bates Treaty.  The United States promised to respect and guarantee the integrity of the Moro states if the Moros would remain neutral. But the Americans never meant to keep their part of the agreement. As soon as Filipino resistance was losing against the Americans, the United States unilaterally abrogated the treaty with the Moros and proceeded with the conquest of Mindanao. The Moros fought valiantly until 1913 when they succumbed “to the superior military force of the Americans”. Besides, the Americans were also able to secure the collaboration of the Moro aristocracy. The United States gave privileges and “gifts” to the Sultanate in exchange for the access and exploitation of their lands and resources

In the years that followed, the United States successfully transformed Mindanao and integrated it with the other conquered Philippine territories. The Americans introduced new laws on land ownership.

·       Public Act 718, issued on April 4, 1903, voided all property and acreage of Mindanao sultans unless these pieces of property had been recognized as the sultanates by the colonial government.

·       Public Act 926, issued on October 7, 1903, declared all unregistered land tracts as public domain and open for homestead.

·       Public Land Act of 1919, appropriated a maximum of 10 hectares in homestead lots to Muslim Filipinos, and 24 hectares lots to non-Muslim Filipinos. 

These laws have deprived many Muslims of their ancestral rights to the land because they followed only customary law and did not obtain titles to their lands mainly out of ignorance or because of a residual sense of resistance.

This was aggravated when the Americans inaugurated a policy of encouraging the migration to Mindanao of landless families from Luzon and Visayas. Christian homesteaders arrived with an official title deed to parcels of land. Conflict erupted almost immediately between settlers who claimed their new legal rights and Muslims who were just as sure of their ownership by virtue of long occupation. However, some of the Datus and other Moro elite obtained titles to their own lands and to those of their clansmen, thus laying the legal groundwork for Muslim landlordism.

The colonial policies from the Spaniards to the Americans have dispossessed Muslims and other indigenous peoples of over 80 percent of Mindanao’s open land. Thus colonial policy has sown the seed of legal and social injustice.  These led to bloody and deadly conflicts over agricultural land between Muslims and Christians in Mindanao, obscuring the historical truth that colonialism was one of the root causes of these conflicts.

[1] accessed May 4, 2005; and CrisisWatch 1 May 2005 No. 21 found in accessed May 24, 2005

[2] There are many scholarly sources on Christian-Muslim relations in the Philippines. To mention a few:  Hilario Gomez, Jr. The Moro Rebellion and the Search for  Peace: A Study on Christian-Muslim Relations in the Philippines (Zambonga:Silsila 2001), Vitug, M and Gloria, G.  Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao. (Quezon City: Ateneo  University Press, 2000), Rosalita Tolibas-Nunez, Roots of Conflict: Muslims, Christians and the Mindanao Struggle, ed. Emil Bolongaita (Makati: Asian Institute of Management, 1997), Peter Gowing, Muslim Filipinos: Heritage and Horizon (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1970), Salah Jubair, A Nation Under Endless Tyranny, 2nd ed. (Lahore: Islamic Research Academy. 1997),  Cesar Adib Majul, Muslims in the Philippines (Quezon City: Universty of the Philippine Press, 1973), Jonathan Fast, and Jim Richardson, Roots of Dependency, (Quezon City: Foundation for Nationalist Studies, 1979).

[3] The word “Moro’ from the Latin Maurus, was used by the Spanish originally to designate the natives of Mauritania in northwestern Africa and later the Moors and Muslims generally. Spain was under Muslim rule for eigth centuries. The Spaniards called , their Muslim conquerors Moros so when they encountered the Muslims of Mindanao, they called them Moros, too. By American usage the word “Moro” meant any Muslim Filipino of the southern islands comprising  thirteen Muslim ethnolinguistic groups of the Philippines. While “Moro” was once considered to be a derogatory term by both Muslim and Christian Filipinos, today it is considered a badge of honor, especially by young Muslims who wish to establish a distinct national identity called Bangsa Moro in the southern Philippines.

[4] During the early period of the colonization the Spaniards generally referred to the Christianized natives (indigenous peoples) in the Philippines as indios.