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Philippines - Religion

The country has an area of 115,831 square miles and a population of 97.98 million. According to the National Statistics Office, approximately 93 percent of the population is Christian. Roman Catholics, the largest religious group, constitute 80 to 85 percent of the total population. Islam is the largest minority religion; Muslims constitute between 5 and 9 percent of the total population. Most Filipino Muslims are members of various ethnic minority groups. They reside principally on Mindanao and nearby islands. Although most belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, a small number of Shia Muslims live in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur in Mindanao. An increasing number of Filipino Muslims have migrated to the urban centers of Manila and Cebu.

Religion holds a central place in the life of most Filipinos, including Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Protestants, and animists. It is central not as an abstract belief system, but rather as a host of experiences, rituals, ceremonies, and adjurations that provide continuity in life, cohesion in the community, and moral purpose for existence. Religious associations are part of the system of kinship ties, patronclient bonds, and other linkages outside the nuclear family.

Christianity and Islam have been superimposed on ancient traditions and acculturated. The unique religious blends that have resulted, when combined with the strong personal faith of Filipinos, have given rise to numerous and diverse revivalist movements. Generally characterized by millenarian goals, antimodern bias, supernaturalism, and authoritarianism in the person of a charismatic messiah figure, these movements have attracted thousands of Filipinos, especially in areas like Mindanao, which have been subjected to extreme pressure of change over a short period of time. Many have been swept up in these movements, out of a renewed sense of fraternity and community. Like the highly visible examples of flagellation and reenacted crucifixion in the Philippines, these movements may seem to have little in common with organized Christianity or Islam. But in the intensely personalistic Philippine religious context, they have not been aberrations so much as extreme examples of how religion retains its central role in society.

Spanish colonialism had, from its formal inception in 1565 with the arrival of Miguel Lpez de Legazpi, as its principal raison d'tre the conversion of the inhabitants to Christianity. When Legazpi embarked on his conversion efforts, most Filipinos were still practicing a form of polytheism, although some as far north as Manila had converted to Islam. For the majority, religion still consisted of sacrifices and incantations to spirits believed to be inhabiting field and sky, home and garden, and other dwelling places both human and natural. Malevolent spirits could bring harm in the form of illness or accident, whereas benevolent spirits, such as those of one's ancestors, could bring prosperity in the form of good weather and bountiful crops. Shamans were called upon to communicate with these spirits on behalf of village and family, and propitiation ceremonies were a common part of village life and ritual. Such beliefs continued to influence the religious practices of many upland tribal groups in the modern period.

The religious system that conquistadors and priests imported in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was superimposed on this polytheistic base. Filipinos who converted to Catholicism did not shed their earlier beliefs but superimposed the new on the old. Saints took primacy over spirits, the Mass over propitiation ceremonies, and priests over shamans. This mixing of different religious beliefs and practices marked Philippine Catholicism from the start.

From its inception, Catholicism was deeply influenced by the prejudices, strategies, and policies of the Catholic religious orders. Known collectively as friars, the orders of the Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, and others, and the Jesuits turned out to be just about the only Caucasians willing to dedicate their lives to converting and ministering to Spain's subject population in the Philippines. They divided the archipelago into distinct territories, learned the vernaculars appropriate to each region, and put down roots in the rural Philippines where they quickly became founts of wisdom for uneducated and unsophisticated local inhabitants. Because most secular colonial officials had no intention of living so far from home any longer than it took to turn a handsome profit, friars took on the roles of the crown's representatives and interpreters of government policies in the countryside.

The close relationship between church and state proved to be a liability when the Philippines was swept by nationalistic revolt in the late nineteenth century and Filipino priests seized churches and proclaimed the Independent Philippine Church (Iglesia Filipina Independiente). After the American occupation, Protestant missionaries came and established churches and helped to spread American culture. Two Filipino independent churches were organized at the turn of the century and are prominent today. These are the Aglipay (Philippine Independent Church) and the Iglesia Ni Kristo (Church of Christ) founded in 1902 and 1914, respectively. Recently the Aglipay signed a covenant with the Anglican Church. The Iglesia ni Kristo has expanded its membership considerably. Its churches, with their unique towering architecture, are landmarks in almost all important towns, provincial capitals, and major cities.

During the martial law and post-martial law periods, the Catholic Church was the country's strongest and most independent nongovernmental institution. It traditionally had been conservative and aligned with the elites. Parish priests and nuns, however, witnessed the sufferings of the common people and often became involved in political, and even communist, activities. One of the best-known politicized clergy was Father Conrado Balweg, who led a New People's Army guerrilla unit in the tribal minority regions of northern Luzon. Although Pope John Paul II had admonished the clergy worldwide not to engage in active political struggle, the pope's commitment to human rights and social justice encouraged the Philippine hierarchy to criticize the Marcos regime's abuses in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Church-state relations deteriorated as the statecontrolled media accused the church of being infiltrated by communists. Following Aquino's assassination, Cardinal Jaime Sin, archbishop of Manila and a leader of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, gradually shifted the hierarchy's stance from one of "critical collaboration" to one of open opposition.

A prominent Catholic layman, Jos Concepcion, played a major role in reviving the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) with church support in 1983 in order to monitor the 1984 National Assembly elections. Both in the 1984 balloting and the February 7, 1986, presidential election, NAMFREL played a major role in preventing, or at least reporting, regime-- instigated irregularities. The backbone of its organization was formed by parish priests and nuns in virtually every part of the country.



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