It’s been four years.
In May 2017, Marawi, known as the Islamic capital of the Philippines, was completely overtaken. The arrest of an ISIS leader led to a five-month battle between the Filipino army and ISIS. Known as the Marawi Siege, the battle left more than half the city’s 200,000 residents displaced. Militants occupied public buildings. They seized hospitals, jails, churches, and mosques. Members of ISIS took hostages and separated them by religion. According to residents, the militants killed any non-Muslims as a form of intimidation.
It’s been four years, but the effects of the siege are still felt every single day.
Thousands of Marawi citizens fled their homes to stay with family members or at camps in nearby cities. People lost homes, businesses, everything. It took months—even years—for families to return to their city.
Almost 100% of the city’s population identifies as Muslim. Many come from wealthy backgrounds; they were businesspeople with steady incomes for most of their lives. When they were forced from their homes, many stepped into a new world, a world of refugee camps. There were no decent sleeping arrangements, not enough food, and no adequate restrooms. Their way of life vanished in the blink of an eye.
“Life in the evacuation center was difficult,” recalls one woman. “There was no proper place to sleep, our privacy depended on a mosquito net. There were more than a hundred of us in the center and we shared one toilet. We had only one faucet to fill a bucket of water for our day’s supply.” Expecting to stay only a few weeks, she and her family left the majority of their belongings in their home.
They were in the evacuation center for more than two years.
“I cried thinking how long we would suffer,” she says.
“I used to have a comfortable bed in our house, a soft pillow, an air-conditioned room. We had our own toilet and many faucets in the house. I took these seemingly small things for granted because we had plenty of them.”
Even those who once held a high status were now forced to do things they’d never done. One young man attempted to cook rice for his community in the camp. He turned the flame up much too high, almost ruining the food. He was visibly flustered, sweating and shaking in fear as he realized his mistake. Women from his community came to help and asked the leaders of the camp to give the man a break. “Please forgive him,” one woman said. “He doesn’t know how to do kitchen stuff because he is our prince.”
The experience was certainly humbling. When left with nothing, the refugees had nowhere to turn. But at one camp, they found someone to point them in the right direction: up.
A Bible League-trained pastor, Pastor Jedah* (real name withheld for security purposes) lives close to one of the refugee camps. His community is a dangerous environment for Christians. “The radical Muslims here are more than willing to shoot and kill anyone who is converting their people into other beliefs,” he says.
In addition to the safety concerns, there’s a cultural struggle among tribes in the Philippines. There’s a deep-seated hatred and mistrust among tribes; people from opposing tribes never work together. Even for Pastor Jedah, a former Muslim and now dedicated man of God, it was a struggle to reach out to these Marawi refugees; many are members of a rival tribe that he’d been taught to hate.
But the Lord worked in his heart. A refugee from an opposing tribe came to Pastor Jedah, crying and begging for counsel. The pastor’s eyes were opened to this person, and his heart was full of compassion. He didn’t care what tribe the person belonged to, he just wanted to help. Pastor Jedah realized that this man had lost everything, and as a Christian, he was called to love everyone. God renewed his attitude toward this tribe and showed him how to best love them.
Actions Speak Louder
Pastor Jedah can’t openly preach the Gospel for safety reasons, but he and his team began to serve the Marawi refugees. They did not introduce themselves as Christians or even promote the Bible at first. Instead, they just showed the Bible’s teachings and the love of Jesus through serving. They offered them food and water, even offered them jobs through a cooperative program. The ministry team lived their lives among the refugee community as representatives of Jesus by showing them pure and unconditional love.
As time went on, the refugees began to ask the big question: Why? Why are these people from different tribes loving us?
Pastor Jedah built a rapport and a sense of trust. He continued to serve the community, but still did not tell them it was because of his faith in Jesus. He partnered with other Christian organizations doing relief work in the area and would encourage the Marawi refugees to join them. The Marawi people would return, outraged. They would confide in Pastor Jedah. “These Christian people are sharing Bible teachings with us. What should we do?” He gently encouraged them to keep attending. “You have nothing to lose and more to gain,” he would tell them.
“You have nothing to lose and more to gain,” he would tell them.
Instead of announcing his own faith, Pastor Jedah continued to love and serve while God worked in the refugee’s hearts. The process worked. Each time a group of refugees would return from visits with the Christian relief organizations, Muslims were accepting Christ as their Savior.
Now, Pastor Jedah and his team are hosting Project Philip Bible studies in secure, secret locations around his city. They are planning outings—once they planned a beach excursion that was a cover to secretly baptize new believers.
It’s extremely dangerous for Pastor Jedah to continue this work. Spies are all over the community pretending to be interested in the Gospel. In reality, they are turning Christians over to the radical Muslims.
Pastor Jedah has received three death threats. Radical groups know everything about him. They know how many family members he has, where he lives, even where his kids go to school. Each new death threat was more serious than the last. The first, in a white envelope, was a letter of warning. The second, in a red envelope, meant the group was prepared to eliminate Pastor Jedah. The third, a black envelope, was a final call.
The Fight’s Not Done
Many of the Marawi refugee families reached by Pastor Jedah have returned to their homes. The city is still being rebuilt. Last year, the government of Marawi said that the priority is to rebuild the 31 mosques that were damaged or destroyed, solidifying Marawi as the Islamic capital of the Philippines once again.
As these new believers integrate back into their lives, pray they would be used by God to reach their communities. Pray that God would use these them to transform the Islamic capital into a beacon of Christianity.
As He’s shown through this horrible siege, God is able to reach individual hearts, to use terrible circumstances, and to change entire nations. Let’s pray for a revival.