Christian and Muslim groups are urging a peaceful resolution following attacks allegedly by groups linked to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao in the Philippines, and retaliation by government troops.
The conflict relates to longstanding tension between the communities, partly occasioned by resentment towards a Muslim homeland, and partly due to extremists spreading fear and prejudice.
Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat, a speaker of the US State Department who was orginally raised in Syria, has called for a proper plan for conversation and conflict resolution.
He told ABS-CBN News recently: "There should be a national roadmap for interfaith dialogue, initiated by government. This should be part of the curriculum for the schools, to have a proper understanding about one another, who the Muslims are for the Christian students, and vice versa. In the US, in the middle school and high school, they study world religions in social studies."
Arafat continued: "The relationship between Christians and Muslims in the Philippines is an important issue to address, getting more important by the day. Those who are creating trouble are minorities. We have to be careful of extremists on both sides, Muslims and Christians, and their supporters, globally. You don’t want outside interference."
Muslim and Christian civil society organisations are working for peace and development on the ground.
There have been subsequent counter attacks and bombings by government troops on villages and towns in Lanao del Norte and other parts of Mindanao since the MILF attacks. So far, over 20,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and some 40 people have been killed.
A staff member with CAFOD, the UK-based catholic relief and development agency, based in Mindanao, said: "The situation is very tense. People are very scared of the possibility of more attacks from both sides."
Carino Antequisa added: "Schools have been taken over by the evacuees and classes suspended. Parents and children have been separated. The situation is expected to get worse and I fear many more people will be displaced. We must act quickly to help those in need and find a way towards a peaceful solution. This is even more vital following mixed messages from both sides as to whether the peace deal is still possible."
NGOs Pakigdait and ECOWEB, who work in the affected communities, are distributing rice, mats and other relief supplies to the displaced. They have set up a registration service to help reunite families and are offering trauma counselling. The organisations are also lobbying for peace talks to get back on track.
CAFOD's South East Asia programme manager Alex Cooney commented: "CAFOD will be providing support to our partners to carry out relief work and ensure people's needs are met in the immediate aftermath of the attacks."
He continued: "It's vital for peace-talks to resume with participation at all levels as these events are creating further divisions in the communities in Mindanao. "