Christians face persecution in Marawi city held by ISIS-inspired militants

Photo: Presidential Communications Operations Office

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) insurgency in Marawi city of Philippines has sent non-Muslims, especially Christians, fleeing for their lives. Southeast Asia must act decisively to curb growing radicalism in the region.

By Nicolette Chua 

Christians in Marawi are now fearing for their lives as Maute militants went on a rampage killing non-Muslims in the southern Philippine city. The conflict in Marawi broke out on May 23 after attempts to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the former leader of Abu Sayyaf group who pledged loyalty to ISIS.

Christians face persecution in Marawi city

Three Christian civilians said they hid in a basement for weeks as the militants tore through the city. They fled on June 13 and were found wandering among the city’s ruins by the police.

The three men comprised a group of five labourers from Iligan city further up in the north. Their Muslim employer hid them in his basement, along with four other men and a pregnant woman. They survived on food that the owner left behind but planned their escape after the food eventually ran out. The pregnant woman and her husband stayed behind.

“We heard them (militants) shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ and asking neighbours about religion,” said house painter Ian Torres, 25, “We could only hear them. If they could not answer questions about Quran verses, gunfire immediately followed.”

It was also reported that Muslims helped Christian workers to escape by lending them their hijabs.

As of June 19, there are over 300 casualties from the conflict. This includes 242 terrorists, 3 policemen, and 56 military personnel killed in action. 26 civilians were also killed by terrorists.

Maute militants were former members of MILF

The southern Philippines has been plagued with a history of conflicts and vice rings. The area is an established base for Muslim separatist groups such as Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), as well as communists and criminals. The Maute group consists of former members of MILF.

When the Mawari conflict broke out, Duterte declared martial law for 60 days across Mindanao. Solicitor-general of the Philippines Jose Calida said that “The dream of the Maute Group, which has pledged allegiance to ISIS and its flag, is to transform Mindanao into an Islamic state.”

Maute militants are possibly motivated by drug trade instead of radical ideology

There is speculation that the Maute group is motivated more by money and drugs than by radical Islam. Philippines’ Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said that the conflict “is related to President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.”

It is known that the Maute group has been funding their operations through the sale of meth. Dominquez added that “because of pressure on the business front, the group has chosen to become ‘ISIS wannabes’” by taking control of Marawi. This would mean that radical Islam is used by the Maute group as a pretext to conceal their drug trade operations.

Southeast Asia must act on growing radicalism

On June 20, the Philippines military launched an offensive by bombing rebel positions and ground troops. It aims to end the conflict by next weekend, which is the end of Ramadan.

Dr. Eduardo Araral, an Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (Singapore), commented that ASEAN must act decisively to prevent “Mawari from becoming the next Aleppo”.

New threats emerge as the state military pushes to end the battle. Dr. Araral notes that ISIS is looking towards Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country as a viable base for spreading their ideology. Indonesia could serve as a “hornet’s nest” for ISIS if the conflict drags on.

It is hence crucial that Southeast Asia should ramp up inter-state security and intelligence collaboration amidst the growing threat of terrorism in the region.