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Fighting creates opportunity among unreached people group

COTABATO, Philippines (BP)–Several weeks of intense fighting on the southern island of Mindanao gave Christians an opportunity to share the good news of God’s love with an isolated people group that has had practically no access to the gospel.
In late June Philippine army troops attacked Camp Rajamuda, the second-largest base of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, one of three rebel groups fighting for Muslim autonomy in the southern Philippines. Twenty-five people were killed in the attack, which sent tens of thousands of villagers fleeing the marsh that has served as the MILF’s stronghold.
Those villagers belonged to the Maguindanao people group, a Muslim tribe that fled to the marsh four centuries ago to escape Spanish “conquistadors” and has lived there in virtual isolation ever since. Among the 1 million Maguindanao — the largest unreached people group in the Philippines — there are no churches and only a few believers.
Yet many of the Maguindanao who fled the intense fighting took refuge in evacuation camps near Cotabato, home to many evangelical churches and a center of Southern Baptist International Mission Board work on the island.
Evangelical missionaries teamed up to assess needs in the evacuation camps, and an interdenominational radio station broadcast appeals for used clothing, rice and sardines. The outpouring of response surprised missions workers.
“We had prayed the Lord would touch the hearts of Christian Filipinos and the Maguindanao,” said one worker. “There’s a lot of prejudice between the groups because of the history between them. But we’ve seen some of those barriers broken down in this situation.”
When the appeals were broadcast, local Christians responded so generously that IMB missionaries only had to use a small part of the relief funds they had requested, the worker said.
“We did relief work all day today, and about the only thing we used relief money for was to buy eight sacks of rice,” he said. “The rest was donated by local Christians.”
Most non-Muslims refuse to venture into the marsh because of bandits who kidnap outsiders for ransom, the worker said. Missionaries feared Filipino Christians also would be reluctant to minister at the evacuation centers.
But volunteers responded in large numbers and were well-received by refugees at the centers. One assessment team even spent the night at one center.
“We were really surprised at how gung-ho this one guy was,” the worker said. “He’s a Filipino doctor, a member of one of our Baptist churches, and he insisted he needed to sleep at the center.
“Usually a physician wouldn’t go anywhere near them for fear someone might kidnap him and hold him for ransom. But this guy really has a heart for them. We couldn’t believe it. It’s just not normal.”
Perhaps the greatest blessing to come out of the refugees’ trauma is the relationships Christians have been able to develop with the Maguindanao, the worker said.
“We’ve met some people and have built some pretty good relationships. These people’s lives have been devastated, and there are tremendous needs in community development and health-care education that we could meet.
“There’s been a long cease-fire now, and it looks like the crisis is beginning to pass. Now we’re praying about what to do next.”
When the Maguindanao do go back home, the worker said, they’ll take with them Scripture portions in their own language. Some will remember seeing the “Jesus” film, also in their own language. Others will recall the Christians who cared enough about them to risk coming to the evacuation camps.
“Pray that we would know what to do next,” the worker said. “Pray that God will speak to these people as they read the Scriptures. And pray that more workers would come forward to help in this effort.”

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  • Mark Kelly