A Glimpse into Christians-Muslims Co-existence in North Mindanao

The closure of Cotabato airport has taken me to the place I could have never imagined to visit. The morning cloud blow a shivering breeze, adding a layer into the slow Monday when I arrived in General Santoz Airport at 06.20 AM, 21st August 2023. Having indulged into a bumpy 12 hours flight and lay over from Manila and Kuala Lumpur a day before, the nature of Gensan started to console my pessimistic heart. As far as the eyes meet, the hills and mountain lining between one another in an unending green landscape. A Gensan Bosporus views, Sarangani Bay, was sparkling from the sun ray. Buffalos, meadows, and horses found rest at the greatest comfort in every bottom of the hill side.

The vision of this trip could not be more resonate than an old sense of activism. Academic activism has been unfavourable due to the post-modern nature of self-entitlement over social, economic, and political privileges. Placing self in other shoes would mean sharing a sense of suffer, death and the willing to make others feel worth living may become a psychological polemic that growingly out of fashion in the higher education industry. Although that is part of the academic ecosystem now, my arrival to Gensan is however the result of community engagement program (CEP) envisioned by the Indonesian Islamic University of Indonesia. The program has come with responsibility to guide students’ interaction and contribution towards a community and it managed to send us deep into Barira district in Cotabato.

Cotabato province, stretched for at least 9000 square kilometres, lies 146 KM further north, passing through Maguindanao del Norte and Sutan Kudarat provinces. Based on the data released in 2020, 50 percent of Cotabato inhabitants are Roman Catholic. Differentiated from the province, Cotabato city is the central location not only dominantly inhabited by significant number of Christian and major Muslims but also where Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for the Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) run its central governmental desk.
This brief article is intended to highlight an angle of many striking realities that has been observed and experienced through CEP. That angle is on co-existence relations between the Christian and Muslims in North Mindanao.

The dim of the churches

A 5 days journey from Gensan to Cotabato city has taken me to witness not only the humble people in their infrastructure and their highly fertile natural resources, but also into the peaceful co-existence between Christian and Muslims.

Starting from the ethnographic observation via a 9 hours bus drive, one could easily witness a contrast mixture of Christian and Muslims passengers. In at least two rows from my front and behind, their conversations look like the remedy of exhausting long drive. An LGBTQ identified person called Manalao, a combo of beauty and masculinity speaks enough English and her kind initiatives in translating the conversation helped me understand the meaning of being minority in the area.

There seems to be no compound division separated by the difference of their religion. Throughout many miles, churches and mosque stand out one after another.
As dominantly a Christian country, well maintained churches perhaps would awe the eye sight of those who come from non-Christian country. It was particularly contrast when compared to the mosque of the minority that struggle in size to even fit 40 regular prayers. In this case, a similarity can be drawn from minority experiences in Indonesia where it displays thousands of well-maintained mosques, compared with not only on the number but also the inadequate maintenance of the churches and temples that belong to the minority.

However, the number of larger sized churches and mosques within 146 KM are almost equal in numbers which signify the equal state of freedom to practice the religions. The lesser number and disproportionate maintenance of mosque in Cotabato are probably driven by the fact that the province was the main areas of Bangsamoro freedom fighters that aid the rationality over the state of poverty and problem of non-developing infrastructure. The latter two points were not exclusively experienced by the passive Muslims victims but also other religions believers. Similar war experiences between the passive Muslims and Christians victims are probably what sustain the understanding to maintain peaceful co-existence between them.

A Test for the Future

Since the peace process started in 2014 and transitional government has taken place in the last 3 years, voices of concern from the community are on the lagging law and policy implementation, increasing social gap, and rumoured corruption were among mostly discussed issues. Autonomous policy in education, Muslims law, and numerous points on infrastructural development were some of the changes expected for a speedy realization.
Annual block grants allocation to the Bangsamoro development in 2020 amounted P.63.6 billion and household expenditure reaches P56.970 billion in 2022 led to the improvement to the international connectivity, and the implementation of labour market and skills-oriented opportunities. The economy increased to 7,5% in 2021 and 6.6% growth in 2022, according to report from Bangsamoro Information office. In contrast to the report, the lack of visible infrastructure development in BARMM resulted in speculation over a possible malpractice of funding. It has somehow triggered changes in social classes and governmental access.

Looking at the existing uncertainty, the next several years will be a test for the future of Bangsamoro community. Instability in politics and economy would trigger conflict in other type of social sphere such as the interfaith relations. In the aspect of religious harmony, several cases of intolerance have especially emerged since the crucial year of governmental transition followed with similar cases during the pandemic. Politically driven individual cases of shooting escalated this year upon the closer upcoming Bangsamoro election in the middle of October 2023.

Despite the sustaining concern, one of the protocol officers or main spoke person to BARMM Wali institution, Makakua M Buat sees that the situation is developing in its nature and believes on the future of harmony in the area. He emphasized that: “Muslims-Christians relations in this region has always been peaceful. We are content but a quick response government and a common universal law are essential for all of us”.
**Author: Nia Deliana taught comparative politics research methodology and international relations theory at Faculty of Social Sciences in Universitas International Islam Indonesia. She published on numerous issues. Her latest work on humanitarian focus includes a chapter on the Rohingya during the Pandemic published in CoronAsur: Asian Religions in the Covidian Age, edited by Emily Zoe Hertzman et al. l (2023).


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