Catholic News Service photo
Philippine Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato
Catholic News Service photo
Philippine Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato
ORLANDO, Fla. — A Philippine cardinal now serving on the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue says Pope Francis' visit to the island nation in January will be of interest to regional Muslims associated with an Islamic-affiliated separatist movement.

Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, who is involved in Catholic-Muslim dialogue, told an international gathering of the Knights of Columbus in Orlando about the newly signed peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in southern Philippines. The agreement has not yet been enacted as law.

"Signed peace agreements do not guarantee a just and lasting peace, when the political and economic causes of war are aggravated by cultural and religious biases and prejudices that have been operative in the minds and hearts of Muslims and Christians for four centuries," said the prelate.

An Oblate of Mary Immaculate and a cardinal since February, he hails from the island of Mindanao in the southernmost part of the Philippines where the separatist group has been active.

In May Pope Francis named the cardinal to the Vatican's interreligious dialogue council as well as the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He was in Orlando Aug. 5-7 for the 132nd Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, he spoke in greater detail about the peace agreement -- he was among 1,000 guests who witnessed its signing -- and the upcoming papal visit Jan. 15-19, which he conceded would probably have too tight of an itinerary to allow for the kind of interfaith-related encounters Pope Francis undertook in Israel and the  Holy Land this year.

Typhoon Haiyan-related recovery efforts are expected to make up a large part of the pope's agenda in the Philippines.

Cardinal Quevedo, a former general secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, still thinks the pope's visit and continued church engagement in the peace agreement and the Islamic presence in the Philippines could be helpful.

A number of ranking members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front attended Oblate-run Notre Dame University, where the cardinal once served as president and in a region where intermarriage between Muslims and Christians is not uncommon.

Muslims there have noted the local Oblates' long-standing empathy and understanding of the plight of the Muslims and their historic claims on the southern islands of the Philippines. Still, innocent civilians have been caught in the crossfire between the government and rebels.

For nearly 40 years, the Muslim rebels fought for the right to  self-determination, engaging government troops in skirmishes and forcing millions of residents to flee their homes. Approximately 120,000 people have been killed.

"The root cause of the conflict is injustice, and after studying Moro history I began to believe they have lost their own sovereignty, their own identity as a distinct group and because of that the government has neglected them in terms of development," the cardinal told CNS.

The new peace pact, which officials call the "Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro" creates a self-governing region in Mindanao to be called Bangsamoro. It will have a parliamentary form of government. The central government in Manila will maintain national defense, currency and postal services.

"The only way to respond to this injustice is to look at their territory now as a product of political realism: They can no longer own the entire area, therefore the idea is a win-win solution to make sure national sovereignty (of the Philippines) is preserved, Cardinal Quevedo said, " but also to acknowledge this culture, which is distinctly different (from) the Christian culture of the rest of the country."

The chair of the Moro front would like to invite Pope Francis to say something to help accelerate the peace process so the agreement will become law, "and that is a little more difficult," according to Cardinal Quevedo.

The Vatican said specifics of the visit would be released before the end of the year. The pope is expected to visit Manila and the Visayas, in the central Philippines.