Sectarian tensions simmer over a pig in Cotabato City

In this majority-Muslim Filipino city, a fight over roast pig sheds light on bigger hurdles Christians and Muslims here navigate.

Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

To understand the culture clash wracking the southern Philippines, consider the lechon.

That's the name for the roast pig that's a Philippines' signature dish. Sold by the kilo in public markets, it's a must-have at any Filipino celebration.

But pork is taboo for Muslims, now a majority in this city (about 60 percent, compared with 40 percent Christian), and who see this part of the southern Philippines island of Mindanao as their ancestral homeland.

Eating pork is a no-no, and even smelling or seeing it is offensive to some.

So what to do about the street lechon sellers?

In Cotabato City last year, shop-owners were ordered to cover their lechon, says Flordeliza Cavite. I found her selling her swine at a stall downtown. Vendors had to use curtains, paint over windows, or move their pork inside to avoid offending passersby and to comply with the ordinance.

This year, rules were relaxed, she said – possibly the result of a power struggle between the Muslim mayor and the city council (mostly Christians).

In a region that's seen bloody, on-and-off warfare between the Philippines military and Muslim rebels, the lechon problem may seem trivial. But it highlights the tricky compromises needed in order for Christians and Muslims to live here in peace as neighbors.

For the fundamental question now is how to expand and enhance an already-existing, nearby, Muslim autonomous region, while respecting the Christian neighbors' rights and way of life.

The stakes are higher than dead pig displays. Get the balance right, and peace could finally come to Mindanao. Get it wrong, and the insurgency that's racked the island for some 40 years will grind on.

That conflict has drained Manila's coffers, killed thousands, displaced more, and caused a refugee problem in Malaysia. It's also created a lawless haven in this area for gunrunners, arms smugglers, kidnappers, and terrorists – including some involved in the murderous Bali bombings.

In early August, the government and Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), were on the verge of signing a preliminary peace deal. If signed, Cotabato City and some nearby, Muslim-majority communities would have become part of an expanded Muslim autonomous region. And not only a bigger region, but one with greatly expanded powers – to run its own courts, and security force, and control much more of its own resources.

Only an 11th-hour Supreme Court injunction stopped the deal. That outcome sparked renewed skirmishes between the MILF and the Philippines military, stalling the peace process.

But many of the area's Christians were relieved. Ms. Cavite worries that if the city becomes part of the Muslim autonomous area, Muslim leaders will ban the public sale of lechon. Her feelings are raw. "Muslims are very bad," she says. "They will control us Christians."

Other Christian locals say they'll move if it becomes a Muslim autonomous area.

Their fears are misplaced, says MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu. "Mindanao is totally different than in other parts of the Muslim world – here we are living side by side with Christians. So we will be liberal on [these] issues," he says.

Such talk is unlikely to allay anxieties, but there's cause for optimism. Muslims and Christians have long been neighbors here, and some things unite them. Take Pac-Man – Manny Pacquiao, the boxer and local pride of Mindanao. He'll take on Oscar de la Hoya in Las Vegas Saturday, and across Mindanao, Muslim and Christians alike will be glued to their televisions, rooting for their local boy.

That means a de facto cease-fire this weekend between the Philippines military and the MILF during the fight. "If there was a Pacquiao fight every day, there could be peace in Mindanao," said Mr. Kabalu, joking.

But behind the humor, there's hope: that the commonalities of Muslims and Christians here will prevail over seemingly irreconcilable differences.

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