The release of 12 evangelical leaders, held hostage in the southern region of Mindanao in the Philippines, highlights how dangerous the region remains for all Christians—although the Philippines is known as Asia's only nation with a Christian majority.

A spate of hostage-taking by the Muslim rebel force Abu Sayyaf marred last summer in the Philippines. After abducting 21 tourists from Sipadan Island, Malaysia, in early June and removing them to Jolo Island, the rebels demanded "the removal of all Christian missionaries in the southern Philippines." The rebels soon dropped this condition and demanded money instead. During the protracted negotiations, a team of 12 Filipino evangelists from the Jesus Miracle Crusade Church offered to go into the hostage camp and pray. When they did on July 1, all 12 were taken hostage.

A military operation launched on September 16 led to their release in early October. The evangelists were taken to the Presidential Palace in Manila and paraded in front of the media. The wife of Wilde Almeda, the lead evangelist, thanked God and President Estrada for their safe return.

The evangelists' actions did not win universal approval, however. Bishop Romulo de la Cruz, a Catholic leader on the island of Jolo, called their actions "imprudent," adding, "Prayers can be said wherever we are and with similar effects."

Meanwhile, Reuters news agency reported this fall that a Christian family of seven was slaughtered in a remote mountain village in the southern Philippines. Though Muslim rebels are suspected, the assailants remain unknown.

Roughly 80 percent of the Philippines' 70 million people are Roman Catholic; 7 to 10 percent are Protestants. Muslims are 8 percent of the population, and most Muslims live in Mindanao and the Sulo Archipelago in the south.

Muslim groups have carried on a bitter and brutal insurgency since the early 1970s, although this largely ceased in 1996 when the dominant rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, obtained limited autonomy over four Muslim provinces on Mindanao. Some rebel groups refused to participate in the peace process.

Libya's Colonel Muammar Ghadafi seized the chance to fund the rebels by paying the huge ransoms demanded of the foreign hostages held by Abu Sayyaf.

"With Ghadafi's $20 million, and the constant poverty in the region, all Christians living near Muslims are going to be in real fear as the tensions will escalate for the future," said a Mindanao pastor. "Don't forget about us." Christians remain a majority of the population in the southern Philippines, but they face constant pressure and harassment from Muslim insurgents.

Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct

Related Elsewhere

Read more about the rescue of the missionary hostages and their homecoming .

Other media coverage of the Philippines includes:

NPA suicide bombers in city –ISAFPThe Manila Times (Nov. 25, 2000)

Philippine Muslims stay under the gunThe Atlanta Journal Constitution (Nov.23, 2000)

'Wahid is arranging talks with Philippine rebels'The Times Of India (Nov. 21, 2000)

Philippine President To Meet Leader —Associated Press (Nov. 19, 2000)

3 more Abu Sayyaf men killedManila Bulletin (Nov. 19, 2000)

Previous Christianity Today stories on the Philippines:

Lost in the 'Promised Land' | Hundreds die in Philippines dump tragedy, but churches move quickly to care for the orphaned and injured. (Aug. 10, 2000)

Catholic Priest Fears Violence will Continue in Southern Philippines | "We must prepare for the worst," he says of "directionless" peace talks. (March 9, 2000)

Two Major Philippine Churches Sign Agreement for Closer Links | Reformed and Catholic influenced denominations working toward full union. (Nov. 31, 1999)

Missionaries in Harm's Way | Filipino churches send workers to harvest difficult fields. (June 14, 1999)

Centennial of Protestantism Marked | One million Christians gather to celebrate in Manila. (June 15, 1998)

Muslim Separatists Sign Peace Accord | After 24 years of fighting can the new peace last? (October 28, 1996)

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