The aftermath of a grenade attack on a mosque in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga, January 30, 2019. Photo: Westmincom

A predawn grenade attack today (January 30) on a mosque in Zamboanga City killed two and injured four, sparking concerns that a new wave of communal violence is on the rise in the Philippines’ southern region. The two victims were Islamic teachers, according to reports.

The lethal attack came three days after powerful twin explosions killed 21 and wounded 100 others at a Catholic cathedral in Jolo, Sulu province. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the terror attack, which was carried out by one of its local affiliates.

Government, military and religious leaders all issued pronouncements to calm tensions as the latest attack threatens to instigate religious animosity between Christians and Muslims in the country’s already restive southern Mindanao region.

Of Mindanao’s 24.1 million people, Muslims account for around 24%, according to a 2015 census, the most recent one conducted. An estimated 60% of Zamboanga City’s 900,000 population is Christian.

No known group has taken responsibility for today’s grenade attack, which was launched while adherents were asleep inside the house of worship.

Belongings strewn inside a mosque in Zamboanga city on the southern island of Mindanao on January 30, 2019, after a grenade attack. Photo: AFP/Stringer

The attack could also cause wider security ripples. Zamboanga City serves as host to the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), the government’s biggest military installation in Mindanao.

US troops are known to be stationed at the facility to provide technical and intelligence assistance to local counterparts tasked with combating Muslim militant groups, many of which have declared allegiance to Islamic State. In 2016, around 100 rotational US troops were based in Zamboanga City.

While investigations were ongoing when Asia Times went to press, Westmincom officials claimed the grenade strike was “not a retaliatory act” for the deadly January 27 church bombing in Jolo, the largest ever against a Christian place of worship in the country.

Westmincom chief Lieutenant General Arnel Dela Vega urged the press and public not to speculate on the anonymous attack’s motivation, to avoid further inflaming the region’s precarious security situation.

“I call for unity. Let us not be divided by the recent incidents. Instead, let us work as one for the perpetrators to be immediately identified and neutralized,” he said, while appealing for prayers for the victims.

Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Besana, Westmincom’s spokesman, said the mosque attack was launched while tight security measures were in place across the vibrant city.

He claimed “no one can enter the city if they have no identification cards and that people aboard cars are required to alight for security checks” at military or police-manned sentry outposts.

Besana also said Zamboanga City has not experienced such a lethal attack in the past three years, while claiming that the security situation across the city was normal in the wake of the attack.

Debris inside a Catholic church where two bombs exploded in Jolo, Sulu province on the southern island of Mindanao on January 27, 2019. Photo: Westmincom via AFP

Both the mosque and church attacks were launched against the backdrop of rights-curbing martial law, which President Rodrigo Duterte imposed across Mindanao in May 2017 in response to an Islamic State-aligned militant group’s siege of Marawi City.

The five month-long war uprooted over 350,000 civilians and left the core of the city in shambles. Some 1,100 persons were killed, mostly Islamic militants. American soldiers provided intelligence support to their Filipino counterparts to help put down the terror assault.

The military has blamed the Adjang-Adjang Group, a sub-group of the Islamic State-aligned Abu Sayyaf, for carrying out the twin bombings at the Jolo cathedral.

Those blasts came less than a week after the successful plebiscite to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), the key autonomy-granting plank in the government’s peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group.

The BOL will establish a new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to replace the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the outgrowth of a previous peace agreement between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

A second plebiscite on the BOL is set for February 6 for areas in North Cotaboato and Lanao del Norte provinces that petitioned for inclusion in the new autonomous Bangsamoro region.

Orlando Quevedo, an influential Catholic leader and Mindanao’s first and only cardinal, has bid to allay fears that minority Christians will be marginalized in the new Bangsamoro entity. The MILF has also assured that they will respect other religions and cultural practices once the BARMM is formed.

An MILF soldier at Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao on the southern island of Mindanao on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ferdinandh Cabrera

Sulu, which questioned the constitutionality of the BOL at the Supreme Court, voted against inclusion to the BARMM, but cannot legally opt out under the constitution.

Zamboanga City, which is part of Mindanao’s Region 9, known as the Zamboanga Peninsula, had opposed the bid of some of its villages to be folded into the new Bangsamoro region.

ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman called on Muslims and Christians to come together and pray for peace following the two religion-related attacks.

“We must stand united against the terrorists who would divide us and thus destroy all that we are working to build and establish in our communities,” Hataman said.

Hataman said the ARMM government condemns the mosque attack with “just as much vehemence as we condemned the twin bombings” in Jolo.

“It is the highest form of cowardice and obscenity to attack people who are at prayer,” he said, noting that the goal of terrorism is to sow fear and confusion.

Zamboanga City mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar also appealed for calm and vigilance after the grenade attack.

A Philippine army sniper peers in front of a mosque during a standoff with Muslim gunmen in Zamboanga City, September 10, 2013. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, and Zamboanga City, known as “Asia’s Latin City,” are about four hours apart by fast sea vessel, but both share a violent history in the Muslim Bangsamoro people’s struggle for autonomy and rights.

Fighting between government forces and MNLF rebels resulted in Jolo being nearly burnt to the ground in 1974, a conflagration locals blamed at the time on government troops.

The MNLF signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, but nonetheless moved to occupy parts of Zamboanga City in September 2013, in a failed bid to install it as the capital of a new Bangsamoro Republic.

The futile invasion killed over 100, uprooted more than 100,000 civilians and temporarily paralyzed the entire city.

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