We’ve never set foot on the island-province of Sulu in southern Philippines, whether for work or sightseeing. That’s because from the 1970s onwards, Sulu had become synonymous with violence and bloodshed, since we had become accustomed to a steady stream of news reports of armed clashes between government troops and Muslim rebels and occasional clan wars.
In fact, Sulu may well be considered the birthplace of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) as its founding chair, Nur Misuari, led the bloody armed struggle to secede from the Republic from 1974 until it signed a peace pact with the Marcos regime in 1977.
A breakaway faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), based in central Mindanao, continued the separatist war against the Manila government from 1978, but also concluded a comprehensive peace agreement with the Aquino government in March 2014.
These days, peace remains elusive in the Sulu archipelago because of the Abu Sayyaf bandit group, which gained notoriety since the mid-1990s for terrorist bombings, kidnapping-for-ransom of foreigners and locals, and abductions of crews of foreign maritime vessels in the Sulu Sea. The Abu Sayyaf operates from its jungle hideouts in the province and in nearby Basilan island.
Jolo, the capital of Sulu, has been wracked by violence for decades now, with its Catholic cathedral having been targeted for terrorist bombings by unidentified persons suspected to be members of the Abu Sayyaf or even foreign terrorists aligned with the Islamic State. In January 2019, twin bombings of the Jolo cathedral killed at least 20 people and wounded over 100 others.
The unstable peace and order situation in Sulu, however, does not seem to be enough cause for worry on the part of Bishop Charlie Inzon, who was appointed by Pope Francis as apostolic vicar of the Jolo Vicariate in April.
Inzon, 54, was ordained priest in April 1993. He is a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) congregation. He served as provincial superior of the congregation since 2018 up to his current posting.
He has also served as president of Notre Dame of Jolo College, as well as of the Notre Dame University in Cotabato province. For a time, he headed the OMI Batu-Batu mission station in nearby Tawi-tawi province.
Bishop Inzon faces daunting challenges in his new assignment.
First of all, Sulu is predominantly Muslim, with Catholics a minority. The same situation exists in other parts of Mindanao.
But that obviously does not deter him from doing what really needs to be done: bring back peace that has proved so elusive for many decades now.
That would require constant dialogue with the Christian faithful and his counterparts in the Muslim community, as well as with the local government units in the vicariate, which also includes Tawi-Tawi.
But how would he be able to bridge the divide between the two faiths?
Inzon has been quoted as saying that the people in the Sulu archipelago are “very religious, friendly, affectionate and sincere.”
That is one positive aspect of Inzon’s work that could help him a lot in strengthening inter-faith dialogue.
Then there’s also the new political structure in the area with the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region that seeks to give the Moro people the opportunity to really govern themselves after the “failed experiment”—or was it spectacular failure?— that was the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
With all this, he believes it is possible “to build a communion of friends amongst Muslims, Christians and lumad or indigenous peoples for peace and harmony.”
We really hope so, and wish him the best of luck in this noble endeavor.
Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.