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Friday, 12 May, 2000, 13:17 GMT 14:17 UK
Church call for prayer crusade

By Simon Ingram in Mindanao

Christians and Muslims in the Philippines are being urged to join together in a prayer and fasting crusade, starting on Saturday.

The call, from the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, Cardinal Haime Sin, comes amid fears that the current wave of violence and kidnappings in the south of the country could produce sectarian conflict between the two religious communities.

A series of bomb attacks and the killing of Christian hostages by Muslim separatists on the island of Basilan, have prompted growing numbers of Christians to join armed vigilante groups.

It is not clear how many people will heed the archbishop's call, which he said was meant to show that Filipino Christians and Muslims were friends, not enemies.

Cardinal Sin wants Christians and Muslims to be friends

But there is little doubt that many in the strife-torn south of the country believe that the always uneasy relationship between the two communities has suffered severe damage.

Feelings among the Catholic majority were outraged by the brutal murders of a priest and three teachers, by kidnappers from the separatist Abu Sayyaf group - the same organisation holding 21 mainly foreign hostages on the island of Holo.

There have been calls for revenge and reports that Christian villagers are joining vigilante groups to protect their communities or, it is feared, to carry out reprisals against Muslims.

Bomb attacks

Tension has been greatly exacerbated by a string of bomb attacks in several Mindanao towns.

In the mainly Catholic city of General Santos, where three people died in bomb attacks last week, newspapers say sales of guns have soared.

Here in Zamboanga, another mainly Christian town, the mayor has urged citizens to step up civic defence precautions.

At dusk, the army is out manning roadblocks and checking vehicles for weapons and bombs.

The upsurge of violence is blamed on Abu Sayyaf and a larger separatist group, the MILF, which has been engaged in fierce clashes with the army in central Mindanao.

Many Christians say recent weeks demonstrate a renewed determination by Muslims to win outright independence from Manila - a demand the government flatly refuses to contemplate.

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See also:

06 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Hostages beheaded in Philippines
03 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines bomb kills four
01 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Hostage drama highlights bitter conflict
02 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Swordsmen of God at war
23 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine dream of Islamic state
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