Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lambs Among Wolves

Even in my home country, believers have to struggle against the onslaught of Islamic militants.

From Voice of the Martyrs Canada.

Lambs among wolves
By Patrice Johnson

Albert Francisco tugged on the small hand of Mial Rose. The nine-year-old tried desperately to keep up with her much taller and much older cousin. The two were on their way to the banana plantation where Albert worked so he could collect his pay. They were walking with relatives down the steep, rocky jungle paths in the Philippine mountains. It was early Sunday morning on May 3, 2009, and the sun bore down making the banana leaves droop underneath its strength.

As the group neared the banana plantation in the village of Tuluan, Albert's cousin began texting his girlfriend nearby. No one noticed the armed men hiding in the thick green jungle leaves until it was too late. When the men in fatigues appeared, Albert immediately recognized them -- they were members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MI).

Shots rang out. Chaos ensued. Albert pushed Mial Rose to the ground, throwing his body over his cousin. Shot in the foot, little Mial Rose was bleeding profusely. Albert was shot in the head and leg. Just before his world faded to black, Albert thought, "Lord, can you help me? Can you give me another chance to live?"

Moments after Albert and his relatives were ambushed, Jean Tongcua was in Tuluan, trying to squeeze in a bit of laundry. It was about 7 a.m. on May 3. She walked down the rocky path to the river near her home. Being six months pregnant, all Jean could manage was a waddle. Slapping her clothes against the huge rocks along the river bank she paused.

She heard something. She stood straight up. Guns rang out like celebratory fireworks. Jean's thoughts turned to her three daughters, ages nine, 11 and 12, home alone. She climbed up the river bank as fast as her pregnant body could take her and crested the small cliff only to see armed men shooting at anyone and everyone. She dropped to her knees and began crawling backwards. Shots whizzed over her head and then a sound louder than a gun whirred in her direction. Behind her the ground exploded and metal flew everywhere, including into her chest.

By the time the sun set on May 3, four people would be dead, including Albert's text-messaging cousin. Six others including Jean, Mial Rose and Albert, were hospitalized for their injuries. The coordinated attacks executed by the MI on three villages in Mindanao left more than 200 Christians homeless and 80 houses, all belonging to Christians, burned to the ground. Muslim homes in the area were left untouched. The Voice of the Martyrs USA took care of the hospital expenses for Jean, Mial Rose, who needed therapy for her foot, and Albert who spent weeks in the hospital. Albert needed multiple surgeries to remove the bullet in his brain. The May 3 attack was just one of hundreds. For years, thousands of peaceful Christian families have suffered at the hands of radical Islamists.

The Philippines is known throughout the world as a Catholic nation. Yet on the nation's second largest island of Mindanao a modern-day religious war is raging. While clinging to the vestiges of a separatist movement began nearly 700 years ago, radical Islamists are using violence, kidnapping and murder to persecute Mindanao's Christians, most of whom are poor subsistence farmers. Like lambs among wolves, Christians live under constant threat from their Muslim neighbours. The violence is so routine, Christian villages have created primitive warning systems akin to the colour-coded terror alert scale seen in airports. One United States official dubbed Mindanao "the new Mecca of terrorism."

Though it makes up just five percent of the population on Mindanao, the Muslim minority plays a sadistic game of musical chairs, stealing the land, destroying the homes, dividing the families and targeting the lives of Christians. It is their hope, when the music stops, the 13 million Christians currently living on the island will be either dead or Islamic converts.

But a small band of evangelical pastors and their flock are determined to stay in this war zone. They say the only way to stop the violence is to show the love of Christ to Muslims -- even as they face the relentless persecution Islamic extremists inflict upon them.

"It is hard to win Muslims to Christ," says Pastor Noel Vasquez, who lives in Mlang, just north of where the May 3 attacks occurred. "But I love Muslims, because behind [that violence] they are longing for love. And I can share the love of Christ with them."

The new Mecca of terrorism
The Toyota SUV bounces viciously as we drive down a "road," just off the main highway in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The road is really rock flattened by vehicles. Every few miles or so there is an army checkpoint. Philippine Army guards with M-16s slung over their shoulders periodically stop cars to peer in. Men in civilian clothes walk along the road, older guns bouncing on their backs. Every other half mile is a mosque, an unmistakable crescent-moon ornament adorning the rooftops.

Our host Pastor Levi and his wife, Lilly, take us to a refugee camp where hundreds of Christian families are forced to live because of the war. As Lilly points out landmarks she begins to cry. She has not been back to this part of Mindanao since she was a girl. Thirty years ago, her grandfather was shot to death by Muslim extremists. They stole her family's land forcing her to abandon her childhood home. For as long as they can remember, Christians in Mindanao have been living in a war zone.

The war began in the late 1300s when Makhdum Karim, an Arab trader, landed near the island of Mindanao. In 1380 he supervised the construction of the largest mosque in that region. More than a century later, the Spanish came to the Philippine islands with their knowledge of Jesus. When Spanish settlers looked to expand their empire to Mindanao they clashed with Muslims there. The Spanish dubbed them the Moro people and failed to conquer them. Hundreds of years, colonization by the United States, occupation by the Japanese and even Philippine independence have not dampened the Moros' dedication to Islam or their dreams of a separate Muslim nation on Mindanao.

Determined to unify the Philippines, the government gave huge swaths of land on Mindanao to poor Christian farmers in the 1950s; Lilly's family was among them. Clashes with the Philippine army and anger led to the forming of the Moro National Liberation Front, (MNLF) in the 1960s. MNLF's founder was Nuir Misauri, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines. Raised on anti-imperialist, anti-American and pro-revolutionary rhetoric and fueled by his studies of Islamic jihad in Libya, Nuir transformed from a political activist into a guerrilla general. He marshaled scores of young Muslim men and women to fight for independence. He declared war on anyone who stood in the way of complete separation from the government -- including unarmed Christians. Estimates say Nuir's war cost 120,000 lives and more than $3 billion.

In 1981, more extreme factions split from the MNLF and formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or the MI. The war took on overtones of jihad, death to infidels and the other extreme Islamic ideology usually heard on the Arabian Peninsula. The 9/11 Commission cites reports of Mohammed Atta, ringleader of the September 11 hijackers, training in Manila. In 2002, the U.S. -- so concerned about the ultra-violent Philippine Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf -- created Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, eventually sending 1,300 troops and $100 million to help the Philippine government fight terrorism.

Peace talks resulted in the government granting Muslims authority to run five provinces on Mindanao. Yet the Muslims say this is not enough and lay claim to 15 provinces -- most of them majority Christian. Muslims try to force Christians to leave these lands through violent, sometimes fatal, intimidation.

"Certain portions of Mindanao are so lawless, so porous ...you run the risk of it becoming like an Afghanistan situation, "Joseph Mussomeli, former acting U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, said in "Bearers of the Sword," a documentary film about Abu Sayyaf. "Mindanao is almost -- forgive the poor religious pun -- the new Mecca of terrorism."

"We cannot live as normal"
Christians say recent peace talks between the government and the multiple radical groups fighting them have not stalled the violence.

"They just started making camps for armed Muslims just 100 metres from my church," says Pastor Romulo O. Patricio. Pastor Patricio has a church in the Sultan Kudaatat province claimed by Muslims. "The Muslims have also begun inserting their houses in between the Christian houses. They built their mosque near our church. Most of the Christians are watching every night."

Pastor Patricio tells of a widow in his church, home alone when Muslims broke through a wall in her house. They poisoned her, knocking her unconscious, then ransacked her place and stole her bike and all the goods in her home-based store. She died of a heart attack shortly after. The attackers showed up at her funeral, questioning Pastor Patricio.

"What is your religion all about?" a Muslim asked. Then he tried to tell the pastor about Islam. Pastor Patricio politely told him the woman's funeral was not the time for a religious debate. "I talk to him as a friend," Pastor Patricio said. "Because if you show to the Muslim that you are against them they can easily make the decision that can really hurt you."

Radical extremism and the proximity of Christians to Muslims is an explosive combination that has left tens of thousands of Christians homeless and thousands dead. Attacks are so frequent Christians build wooden watch towers in their villages where armed men spend the night. One shot means start to pack, armed Muslims are coming. Two shots mean forget the packing, get out now. The unyielding assaults have robbed Christians like Josephine Claridad of their normality. Josephine used to have a beautiful home made of concrete and wood. She had a small farm where she grew food for her family. She was part of a bustling Christian community in Alamada. Her fellow neighbours had elected her as a leader to negotiate with local government officials on their behalf.

But then in December 2008, gunfire jolted Josephine out of her bed. It was not the first time, but this time it was different. "I thought that it is time for the end of the world," she said. "I was very afraid." Psalm 23 floated through her mind. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters...." She asked the Lord for guidance because she knew only He could make her safe. In her night clothes and slippers, Josephine ran out into the dead of night fleeing for her life.

She flagged down a vehicle and the driver drove her to a nearby relative's house. In all, about 250 families fled their homes during that attack, ending up in a refugee centre located less than three miles from a Philippine military base. VOM-USA supplied food, bedding, clothes and other necessities to refugees like Josephine. Josephine visits her home during the day but says it is too dangerous for her to spend the night. She is hoping to return home permanently.

"We cannot live as normal," she says. "We can't really live as peaceful as we did before because we still have our minds on that night and they might come back again. I miss sleeping alone in my home. When you stay in your home you feel like your home is your palace."

Persecution is the norm on Mindanao yet church leaders are not defeated. "We are peace loving people," says Pastor Daniel Saure Sr., who pastors a church in Cotabato where a church was bombed on July 5, 2009. "We want to have a nice rest but during this time the majority of us will not really have a good sleep. I would love to have peace ... but to me I don't like to admit that it is a curse, because persecution ... when talked about by Jesus ... if you want to live a holy life you are surely going to suffer persecution. It was said that we are going to suffer much tribulation to get into the kingdom of God. And it just so happens that we are in a certain area where our faith is really tried because of the current situation."

"If we die, we die with the Lord"
No one would blame Christians living on Mindanao if they pulled up stakes and left. Yet those interviewed are determined to stay. Not because they are fighting for land but because they are fighting for souls. Even in war, pastors are actively evangelizing the Muslims who seek to kill them.

"Persecution is a very big lesson to learn," says Pastor Saure. "Ask Jesus -- He has taught us forgiveness. It takes much grace [from] the Lord to do that.... So you look at the person as a soul that needs a saviour, individually not so much as ideology.

"We share our faith with Muslims and when we have programs we include them socially. Not so much conversion but programs that will help them to see that we love them. That is why we show them love. Someone from another village said, 'No, do not do that.' We said, 'This church is loving and forgiving and showing the love of God' and we will do the best we can to share what we have."

So how do you evangelize someone who seeks to kill you? Pastor Noel Vasquez, who has a church in an area surrounded by armed Muslims, explains it this way:

"First I fast," he says. "Then I find." Once Pastor Noel finds a willing Muslim he just loves on them. He gives them gifts -- food, rice, little things. He becomes their friend. Pretty soon he is eating in their home and telling them about God. Bringing a Muslim to church would result in death for the Muslim and the pastor so Pastor Noel takes his evangelism to other places, like city hall. With the help of a Christian politician he began holding devotionals five days a week for city employees, some of whom are Muslims. One time a Muslim challenged him. "If your god is a true god he will heal me," the Muslim said. He had a kidney stone.

Pastor Noel took the prayer request back to all the pastors he knew. He did not mention the Muslim man by name. About 35 congregations prayed that Sunday. "That week the Lord delivered him from that kidney stone," Pastor Noel said grinning widely. The healed man is now a believer.

VOM-USA provided Pastor Noel a motorbike so he can reach more Muslims in his area. Even as he spreads the gospel in the most dangerous areas he is not afraid. "If God is for us who can be against us," he says. "Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. So these killings and murders are just a thing that is passing our way so let us hang on to the love of Christ in our hearts because if we are with Christ even if we die, we die with the Lord."

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