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Launch of UNOCT Global Programme on Countering Terrorist Threats against Vulnerable Targets, with thematic exchange on the protection of religious sites - Lessons learned from recent terrorist attacks against religious sites

Tuesday, 19 January 2021
H.E. Mr. ENRIQUE A. MANALO Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Philippines to the United Nations
New York, USA



I thank Undersecretary General Voronkov for his gracious invitation to participate in the launch of the  Global Programme on countering terrorist threats against Vulnerable Targets and in this thematic exchange on the protection of religious sites.  I also thank Qatar, through Permanent Representative Sheikha Alya Ahmed bin Saif Al-Thani, for their support for the Programme.

The Philippines welcomes this Programme as it helps operationalize the Secretary-General’s Action Plan to Safeguard Religious Sites[1], which we have strongly supported.

The Global Terrorism Index (GTI)[2] ranked the Philippines 10th among all countries impacted by terrorism in 2019, citing among others, the two coordinated bombings on a Cathedral in Jolo, Sulu in January 2019. At least 20 people were killed, and hundreds injured. Three days later,  in Zamboanga, also in Southern Philippines, a grenade attack in a mosque killed two Muslim religious leaders. The Jolo Cathedral attacks were eventually confirmed to be suicide bombings by foreign terrorist fighters.

These were not the first attacks on religious sites, which have long been part of the modus operandi of terror groups, including the Abu Sayyaf, in their bid to frame their terror campaign as a “war” between Muslims and Christians. In the 2017 Marawi Siege, for instance, ISIL elements and foreign terrorist fighters attacked and desecrated churches, and uploaded videos of themselves doing so.

As the Plan of Action emphatically states, “Religious sites and all places of worship and contemplation should be safe havens, not sites of terror or bloodshed.” Moreover,  “[a]ttacks and all acts of violence against religious sites and worshippers must be condemned without exception.”

The protection of religious sites – no matter what denomination – must therefore be a collective endeavor of the international community, and in this light the Philippines welcomes this opportunity to share some of the lessons that we have learned:

First, an effective legal framework is crucial.  Although attacks on religious sites have been considered aggravating circumstances under our penal code, attacks on religious sites per se were not.[3] Following the Marawi siege of 2017, we also could not prosecute foreign terrorist fighters, due to legal gaps in our Human Security Act.

But with the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act, we have shored up our legal framework in order to prosecute FTFs and acts of terrorism. But at the same time in its implementation, it mandates the State to uphold the basic rights and fundamental liberties of the people as enshrined in the Constitution. Its enactment was done pursuant to our commitment, and strict adherence to the relevant Security Council resolutions, including resolutions 1373 and 2178, as well as the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS).

Second, the need for a combined kinetic and soft approach and address roots of terrorism and violent extremism. To be truly successful in stamping out terrorist elements, prosecution, military and law enforcement operations are not sufficient. The underlying conditions that drive individuals to join terrorist and violent extremist groups must also be addressed. Hence the adoption last year of our National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE).

This also complements our security measures and programs, including our participation in the UNOCT’s Countering Terrorist Travel Programme. And we are also working with the United States on the development of a National Action Plan for Critical Infrastructures and Soft Targets (NAP CI-ST).

Thirdly , we must combine a whole-of-government approach with a whole-of-society approach. Working with religious leaders and faith-based organizations in the crafting of and implementation of preventive and protective measures in relation to religious sites is critical. But engagement with local governments, civil society, women’s groups, the youth, local communities, traditional and social media, and the private sector is also needed.

This is is because churches and mosques and religious sites are not just infrastructure per se, but “representative of the history, social fabric and traditions of people.[4]” When you strike at them, it is not just an economic loss or a political defeat, but an attack on the people’s sense of community and humanity.

The Philippines government has a very strong partnership with the Catholic Bishops Conference and the National Ulama Council, whose calls for unity and peace have been crucial in sustaining the solidarity and resilience of communities affected by terrorist bombings.

Fourth, it is essential to promote a culture of peace and interreligious dialogue and counter the narrative of terrorists. Recruitment and radicalization are a matter of narratives and storytelling, of convincing potential recruits that there is an evil to be fought. And the terrorists have been very good at that, using social media platforms, even more so with restrictions of movement due to COVID-19.

As such, in the implementation of our National Action Plan on P/CVE, we have worked with the UNOCT in developing strategic communications frameworks and enhancing our agencies’ awareness and capacities. Moreover the development of counter-narratives must be pursued with active participation and inputs of faith-based networks.

To contribute to the global normative framework, the Philippines and Pakistan have for some time now been spearheading  the annual General Assembly resolution on the Promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, which “recognizes the importance of interreligious and intercultural dialogue and its valuable contribution to promoting social cohesion and inclusion, peace and development.”[5]

In the wake of the 2019 bombings, the Catholic Bishops Conference, National Ulama Council and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) adopted the principles in the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”, which was issued by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Ahmad Al Tayyeb.

Finally Mr.Moderator,

As Undersecretary General Voronkov has stated, “[p] rotecting soft targets is, by definition, very difficult. But this does not mean it is impossible.”[6] So. By working together and exchanging best practices, which we are doing this morning,  we can prevent, protect, mitigate and respond to such terrorist attacks and reduce the vulnerabilities of soft targets.

Thank you. END