Various forms of political violence seem endemic in the Philippines. While the country has not recently experienced inter-state war, it features multiple long-standing insurgencies; targeted violence against politicians, reporters and civil society organizations; the opportunistic presence of transnational terrorist organizations; and large-scale police violence associated with former President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign against illegal narcotics.

Religious cleavage contributes to some of this violence, and multiple religious actors play a part in attempting to promote peace and community cohesion amid uneven development and weak governance.

Exterior of the Manila Cathedral, October 29, 2023.  (Creative Commons/LMP 2001).
Exterior of the Manila Cathedral, October 29, 2023. (Creative Commons/LMP 2001).

Part I: The Religious Landscape

Indigenous religious traditions, Hinduism and Buddhism trace back over a millennium in parts of the Philippines — and all remain active, if minority, features of the contemporary religious landscape. The history of Abrahamic religions in the Philippines is tied to periods of international trade and colonialism. Muslim traders arrived on islands now part of the Philippines well before Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival brought Christianity along with Spanish power in 1521. Islam maintained a crucial role in political life for centuries on the island of Mindanao, even as Christian colonial power grew elsewhere in the country. Spanish colonial rule saw expansion of the Catholic population as well as extensive intertwining of state and church. The political power of Spanish friars became a target of criticism for the country’s nationalist movement, most famously through the character of Padre Damaso in José Rizal’s novel “Noli Mi Tangere” (1887). The arrival of American colonialism at the turn of the 20th century saw the expansion of Protestant missionary activities. American colonial authorities had significant influence over constitutional language regarding religious disestablishment that remains relevant in the post-independence era.

Since independence, the authoritarian rule of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. looms largest over religion’s contemporary role in politics. Marcos declared martial law in 1972, ostensibly to address both communist insurgency and Muslim separatists. Catholic authorities became more united in opposition to Marcos Sr. as human rights abuses under his regime worsened, and Manila’s Cardinal Jaime Sin eventually played a central role in the largely peaceful “People Power” revolution that toppled Marcos Sr. in 1986. Networks of Catholic clergy, religious actors   and laity that formed in this period remain involved in contentious issues like environmental advocacy, protection of Indigenous communities and interfaith peacebuilding. However, neither Marcos Sr. nor subsequent democratic leaders could fully eliminate festering violence tied to communist insurgents and various Muslims seeking self-governance. Major progress toward a more peaceful Muslim Mindanao took place in recent years, as negotiations yielded agreement on autonomy provisions for portions of the region in 2014, and the formal launch of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in 2019. 

Religious Demographics

Religious Demographics in the Phlippines Chart

The Philippines is sometimes described as “Asia’s only Christian nation.” This is an incomplete story, but with a kernel of truth. According to the country’s 2020 census, 78.8 percent of the country, representing over 85 million individuals, is Roman Catholic. This overall population share has held relatively steady in recent decades; roughly 85 percent of the country was found to have a Catholic affiliation in the 1990 census, for instance. Catholics make up around 90 percent or more of the population in many of the country’s most populated areas, including metro Manila and the province of Cebu. Several Charismatic Catholic movements, most prominently the El Shaddai movement, claim millions of members, and often operate with some independence from the official Catholic hierarchy. 

Various non-Catholic Christian groups account for smaller slices of the overall population, but still represent millions of Filipinos. The largest of these is the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), a church founded in the country that, according to the 2020 census, represents 2.8 million individuals, or 2.6 percent of the overall population. Another Christian denomination of local origin, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, or Aglipayan Church, represents roughly 1.5 percent of the population, while denominations like the United Church of Christ in the Philippines and Seventh Day Adventists represent somewhat less than 1 million individuals. In the 2020 census, 8.2 percent of the population listed an “other” religious affiliation, which likely represents the growth of non-denominational Christianity in the country. Several non-Catholic Christian denominations, such as the United Church of Christ in the Philippines and the Episcopal Church in the Philippines, have long-standing relationships with Indigenous communities in the country. 

The country’s single largest religious minority is its Muslim community, which, according to the 2020 census, represents 6.4 percent of Filipinos, or nearly 7 million individuals. While Muslims are present across the Philippines, the demographic center of the country’s Muslim community is in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the administrative unit on the southwest of the island of Mindanao where Muslims represent over 90 percent of the population. 

Legal Status of Religion:

The Constitution of the Philippines continues to reflect influence from the American colonial period, when authorities eager to reduce the power of Catholic friars mandated separation of church and state while guaranteeing freedom of religion. The 1987 constitution declares the separation of church and state to be “inviolable.” There is no general ministry for religious affairs, although federal ministries do register religious organizations for tax exempt status.

Notwithstanding this language, Philippine courts have made quite clear that their country institutionalizes a form of “benevolent secularism.” There is little trace of anticlericalism in Philippine law. Instead, there is extensive cooperation between religion and state in areas like the provision of education and health care. 

Catholicism continues to enjoy particular influence over aspects of the country’s laws. The country remains one of only two in the world (joined by the Vatican) that does not permit divorce. Legal language related to claims for annulment reflects influence from Catholic canon law. Reproductive health services are limited to those ruled non-abortifacient by the country’s health officials. 

Islam also enjoys unique legal status in the country. The country includes a National Commission for Muslim Filipinos, which does not exist for other religious communities, and recognizes sharia court jurisdiction in several areas of law tied to personal status. The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao’s legal framework is intended to further the self-governance of Muslim Filipinos, while ensuring religious freedom for minorities and even developing specific legislation for the protection of non-Moro Indigenous peoples (or Lumads).

Religious Freedom in the Philippines

The Philippines’ constitution guarantees free religious exercise, and in general this guarantee is honored in practice. The legislature has considered a “Magna Carta of Religious Freedom Act,” which advocates claim will further solidify religious freedom guarantees in the country. It passed the country’s House of Representatives in early 2023. Other legislation has sought to increase anti-discrimination protection for Muslim Filipinos.

With that said, in practice, tensions do emerge over religious freedom in the country. Most prominently, Muslim Filipinos continue to report practical obstacles to religious equality in the country, in particular unique surveillance from security services of Muslim schools and institutions. Religious individuals from several Christian denominations involved in social justice advocacy have also been subjected to “red tagging,” a practice in which security services claim that individuals are tied to the country’s communist insurgency, thus rendering them vulnerable to kidnapping or even assassination. Advocates from the country’s humanist community argue that the country’s “benevolent” form of secularism in practice privileges religious influence and renders non-religious Filipinos second class citizens. 

Key Religious Actors

Bishop Pablo Virgilio "Ambo" David

Within the country’s Catholic majority, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) represents the official hierarchy. The CBCP’s president is elected from among the country’s bishops, and often has a prominent role in public life. The current CBCP president, Bishop Pablo Virgilio “Ambo” David, has been outspoken on issues of human rights. 

Men’s and women’s religious orders also play an important part in Catholic life in the country. The Conference of Major Religious Superiors, which gathers leaders of these orders, was central to opposition to the Marcos Sr. dictatorship and remains outspoken in public affairs. Catholic educational institutions play an important role in training the country’s political and economic elite. Universities like Ateneo de Manila, De La Salle, and University of Santo Tomas play this role in metro Manila, and regional universities throughout the country play a similar role. Charismatic Catholic movements like El Shaddai and Couples for Christ have grown rapidly, and often feature lay leadership with significant influence.

While Islam’s less hierarchical structure means there is no equivalent of the CBCP among the Muslim minority, there are prominent Muslim networks that play important roles. The government maintains a National Commission for the Muslim Filipino, an agency intended to improve development among Muslims in the country as well as assisting with organizing Muslim schools and pilgrimages. The country’s network of official sharia courts relies on specialized attorneys and judges, as well as specialized training in the country’s law schools. Various Muslim networks in Mindanao are active in peace and development work, and the Philippine Center on Islam and Democracy regularly convenes clerical and lay Muslim leaders for events related to public life.

The country’s diverse non-Catholic Christian landscape has varied leadership patterns. The Iglesia Ni Cristo’s leadership largely rests with members of the Manalo family. Several Protestant denominations are organized under the umbrella of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), which is active in social justice advocacy. Many of the country’s evangelical churches recognize the Philippine Conference of Evangelical Churches (PCEC), which has programs intended to organize evangelical pastors in public life. Evangelical megachurch networks have grown as well, with leaders playing independent roles in the country

Religion and Public Life

Religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, stands at the center of myth-making about democracy in the Philippines. Religious networks were integral to discrediting the fraudulent “snap election” called by Ferdinand Marcos Sr. in 1986, which led to the peaceful “People Power” protests that forced him from office. Manila’s Cardinal Jaime Sin was a central figure in this drama, calling his flock into Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) and later working to stabilize the government of President Cory Aquino. A church known as Our Lady of EDSA now stands on the site of those protests.  

In the post-authoritarian period, religious actors came to have influence over numerous policy spheres, from education and healthcare provision to regulations on divorce and advocacy for land reform. Grzymała-Busse and Slater argue that the Philippines epitomizes a form of religious influence via “institutional access,” in which religious elites enjoy privileged, informal input over government policy without organizing official religious political parties. This pathway of influence was especially open to leaders of the Catholic majority.

Religion, particularly Islam, has a unique role in the newly created Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The BARRM is governed under a Bangsamoro Organic Law, which from its preamble recognizes the desire of the Bangsamoro people for governance “reflective of their system of life as prescribed by their faith, in harmony with their customary laws, culture and traditions.” The law guarantees religious freedom, with particular reference to protection for non-Moro Indigenous communities (or Lumads). BARMM leaders have described the Organic Law as reflecting a desire for “moral governance” that promotes the common good and social justice.

Map of Mindanao

Recent years have seen new questions about the stability of religious influence. During the presidency of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, the CBCP expressed strong disagreement with the 2013 reproductive health law, but ultimately failed to halt its passage. Some bishops campaigned against the law’s advocates in the next elections, but to little effect. National religious leaders associated with the CBCP, NCCP and PCEC spoke out with varying degrees of criticism regarding human rights violations during the “drug war” of President Rodrigo Duterte, and yet he departed office with extremely high popularity. In the 2022 election, nearly 1,500 Catholic clergy formally campaigned against Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and yet he romped to victory with 60 percent of the vote. In contrast, other religious players, from the Iglesia ni Cristo, which formally endorses candidates, to the controversial pastor Apollo Quibiloy, whose SMNI News is close to the Duterte family, seem ascendent in public influence.

Transnational and Diasporic Religious Factors

The Filipino diaspora stretches across the world, and thus various transnational religious influences impact religion in the country. Most obviously, the country’s Catholic majority is deeply tied to the Vatican. Pope Francis made a powerful pilgrimage to the country after the tragedy of Super Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan, and former Manila Archbishop “Chito” Tagle is among the highest-ranking members of Pope Francis’ Vatican administration. 

Various Protestant churches in the country are strongly connected to international networks as well, perhaps most prominently with Bishop Efraim “Ef” Tendero, who serves as secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance. The country’s Muslim minority also has long historical ties to Southeast Asian Muslim networks. Foreign fighters are also a recurrent presence among Muslim militant networks in the country’s south. 

The modern Filipino diaspora is best personified by the overseas Filipino worker (OFW), roughly 2 million of whom work on a temporary basis around the world, especially across Asia and the Middle East. The Iglesia Ni Cristo’s executive minister, Eduardo Manalo, has served as special representative for OFW concerns under both the Duterte and Marcos Jr. administrations, reflecting the importance of OFWs to the country’s domestic religious leaders. 

Interreligious Affairs

Various interreligious networks exist in the Philippines, and many have a history of work related to peace and conflict in the country. At a regional level, the most prominent of these may be the Bishops-Ulama Conference (BUC) of the Philippines, which blends Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leadership to pursue peace and development in Mindanao. The Ecumenical Bishops Forum/Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform engages a broad array of peacebuilding and human rights promotion activities. On a governmental level, the Philippines has a long history of promoting institutionalization of interfaith dialogue at the United Nations. The country hosted a Regional G20 Interfaith Meeting in summer 2023. Interreligious initiatives such as the Mindanao Peace Forum are particularly focused on continued peacebuilding in the BARMM. 

Part II: Religion and Conflict

While the country has not recently experienced inter-state war, it features multiple, persistent forms of domestic political violence. This section takes up three of these: insurgency tied to Moro-majority portions of the island of Mindanao, the communist insurgency of the New People’s Army, and targeting killings of civil society activists. While each is distinct, they share a common pattern of active intervention from religious actors, coupled with persistent challenges tied to state capacity and weak local governance.

Various insurgencies against central governments have persisted in Moro Muslim areas of the island of Mindanao since the colonial periods. The conflict is not exclusively religious in nature, as local clan dynamics have fueled fractious militant groups. With that said, Muslim identity is a clear source of differentiation between Moro Muslims populations and the predominant Christian identity of the rest of the country. Muslim insistence on increased regional autonomy, and subsequent fears from Christians and non-Moro Indigenous communities (or Lumads) about their status, were a recurring challenge in the early stages of peace negotiations. More recently, terrorists from groups that pledged loyalty to the Islamic State engaged in a protracted, and ultimately unsuccessful, battle for control of the city of Marawi in 2017. Religion has at times provided targets for violence tied to the insurgency, including the 2019 bombings of the Catholic cathedral on Jolo Island and the December 2023 attacks on a Catholic mass at Mindanao State University. Persistent tensions with Lumad communities are frequently tied to Indigenous religious conceptions of collective land ownership.

Various religious networks have long histories of advocacy for peace in Moro areas. The BUC brought high-level Catholic, Protestant and Muslim clergy together for peace education and mediation. Grassroots dialogue efforts were frequently supported by transnational religious development funders as well as local Christian and Muslim educational institutions. 

President Rodrigo R. Duterte poses for a photo with the legislators and negotiators in the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), as well as top officials from the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police during the presentation of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) to the MILF at Malacañan Palace on August 6, 2018. (Philippine News Agency / Wikimedia Commons)
President Duterte with legislators and negotiators in the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), as well as top military and police officials, during the presentation of the Bangsamoro Organic Law to the MILF on Aug. 6, 2018. (PNA)

Peacebuilding entered a new era with the official creation of the BARMM in 2019. The Bangsamoro Transition Authority has seen strong interfaith relations as central to the ultimate stability of the region, and programs like the Madaris Volunteer Program are working to mainstream interfaith peace education into school curricula. Prominent Christian clergy advocated in favor of the region’s creation in advance of the plebiscite it required. The focus of many religious charitable networks now pivots to working for inclusive development in a region that still faces disproportionate economic obstacles.

In contrast to the relative progress made in establishing Bangsamoro, the country’s communist insurgency, led by the New People’s Army (NPA) and its associated National Democratic Front (NDF) of the Philippines, has resisted resolution. NPA violence was a key rationale for the declaration of martial law by Ferdinand Marcos Sr., and while negotiations have waxed and waned since Marcos Sr.’s ouster, permanent settlement is elusive.

Christian leaders, primarily drawn from the CBCP and member denominations of the NCCP, regularly take on prominent roles in national mediation efforts between the government and representatives of the NPA-NDF. At the grassroots level, similar leaders were often central to community-based efforts to declare “zones of peace,” intended to reject both military and NPA presence in a locality. Clerical involvement can at times be controversial. One CBCP commission recently joined the government’s official National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, “to address some Church issues vis-à-vis government.” The move was criticized by some as legitimizing military abuses.

Religion has played a complex role in the NPA insurgency. Conservative Christian groups have strongly opposed communist influence, which helped to explain the Vatican’s early support for the Marcos Sr. dictatorship. However, Christians tied to liberation theology have also played a regular part on the country’s left. A network known as Christians for National Liberation supported the revolutionary left, and the NDF’s intellectual leader, Jose Maria Sison, wrote about the potential for Marxists to find common cause with those Christians dedicated to social justice. 

Beyond these long-standing insurgencies, the Philippines confronts endemic violence against journalists, environmental activists and advocates for Indigenous rights. International networks consistently rate the country among the world’s most dangerous for journalists and environmental reformers. These threats are at times tied to the insurgencies analyzed above. The controversial 2020 Antiterrorism Act, which expanded police detention powers and weakened protections against abuse, was justified as necessary to make progress confronting insurgency.

Religious networks are not immune to this anti-civil society violence and have been subjected to prosecution under antiterrorism laws. Most controversially, this has involved so-called “red tagging,” in which religious charitable networks working in impoverished communities are accused by security forces of channeling funds to the NPA and its affiliates. Church groups conducting environmental advocacy intended to protect Indigenous communities from potentially damaging development projects have been particular targets for this practice. 

National and international religious networks have spoken out against the practice of red-tagging and the violence it generates. Prominent national clergy like CBCP President “Ambo” David have called for an end to the practice, as has the World Council of Churches. Clergy have similarly spoken out in favor of press freedom after the killing and legal harassment of prominent journalists. 

Conclusions: Looking Ahead

Religion remains a powerful force in Philippine society. Popular devotions attract fervent participation, and new religious movements continue to grow rapidly. Religious leaders have a distinguished post-independence history of engagement in various forms of peacebuilding, and contemporary networks continue to build on this legacy. Local churches, for instance, were among the few institutions able to protect communities from the intense violence associated with former-President Rodrigo Duterte’s “drug war.”

At the same time, the contribution of religious actors to peacebuilding may be undergoing a transition. With both insurgencies and more diffuse forms of political violence in the country often tied to unequal development and weak governance, the future role of religious networks in promoting peace may be focused on addressing these persistent challenges in the country’s politics. When Caritas Philippines, for instance, launched a local governance transparency watchdog in 2022, it may have been taking steps to not only improve development, but promote the foundations for more resilient peace.

This primer was drafted in October 2023 by David Buckley of the University of Louisville’s Center for Asian Democracy with input from USIP’s Haroro J. Ingram.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Southern Philippines: Fostering an Inclusive Bangsamoro

This report, drawing on fieldwork in the BARMM during its transitional period under an interim government, documents areas of progress in the ongoing peace process as well as needs for further inclusion, both in terms of gender and local non-Moro indigenous populations.

Church vs. State

Detailed reporting and vivid photojournalism sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting documents the role of local religious networks in responding to the extensive community violence associated with former-President Rodrigo Duterte’s “drug war.”

Principles and Practice of Moral Governance in the Bangsamoro

BARMM leaders illustrate the concept of “moral governance” as a source of development and inclusion in the region. They ground the concept in Islamic principles and compare and contrast it with traditional conceptualizations of “good governance.”