500 years of Christianity in the Philippines: Growing away from conquest and division towards reconciliation and solidarity

The events that first brought Christianity to our shores also brought much division, discrimination, sowing the first seeds of conflict between the Christians, Muslims and Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines.

500 years of Christianity in the Philippines

Growing away from conquest and division towards reconciliation and solidarity


by Paul Glynn

Regional Director

The Spanish colonizers brought the Catholic faith to the Philippines, where it continues to survive after 500 years. The Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila, Bishop Pabillo, has pointed out that: “Filipinos have learned to distinguish between the Christian faith and the Spanish colonialism.” (https://cbcpnews.net/cbcpnews/500-years-of-christianity/) In other words, while Gospel of Christ with its message of universal love, justice and equality reached our shores 500 years ago, it came as it were as a gift that was ‘wrapped’ with colonial values that were very much in conflict with the values that this gift of the Gospel contain. The events that brought Christianity to our shores also brought much division and injustice. In a sense, these colonizers brought the illnesses (of discrimination, division, conflict and injustice) while they were also bringing cures for these illnesses (Gospel values).


Unlike countries such as Korea and Russia, where Christianity was largely introduced by the locals themselves, or like Ireland and Scandinavia, where the Catholic missionaries were non-threatening and highly respectful towards the local culture, the story of Christianity in the Philippines is, unfortunately, much like that in most countries colonized by European imperial powers. The cross accompanied the sword and the cannon. Magellan engaged in bloody combat less than a month after his chaplain had said the first mass in the Philippines and was killed in the process. When, in 1565, Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, together with Spanish 500 troops and seven Augustinian missionaries arrived in Cebu to colonize and evangelize they opened fire on the Rajahnate (Kingdom), burning 1,500 homes and killing over 500 locals. It was only when the colonizers went searching in the charred remains of what had been the Rajahnate that they found the Santo Niño undamaged by the attack.

From Cebu, Legaspi’s colonizing and evangelizing expedition moved to Manila, where they subdued by sword and cannon the Muslim Rajah leaders, burning down their wooden fortresses and replacing them with a stone fortress dedicated to Santiago Matamoros (i.e.: Saint James the, patron saint of conquests over the Muslim Moors). Alas, along with Christianity, the Spanish colonizers had brought with them a deep suspicion towards Muslims. It had only been in the year 1492 that Queen Isabela and King Ferdinand had created a united Christian kingdom in Spain by expelling the Muslim Moors from the country. To this day, Filipino Muslims are commonly called ‘Moros’ (Moors), a legacy of how the Spanish colonizers regarded them as being much the same as their arch-enemies back in Spain. An early indication of the colonizers’ dislike of Islam was the fate of the son of Rajah Soliman, one of the Muslim leaders in Manila. This boy had been forcibly adopted and baptized by Legaspi (and given the baptismal name of Agustin de Legaspi). When his mother died, he showed his respect by organizing an Islamic funeral for her (as, after all, she was a Muslim). When the Spanish authorities heard of this, they had him imprisoned for treason. When he eventually broke free and retaliated against those who had incarcerated him, he was executed. Loyalty to the king of Spain demanded adherence to the king’s religion. Any refusal to embrace the religion of the king of Spain was regarded as treason.

Santiago Matamoros

Santiago Matamoros


In order to be more effective in both evangelizing and colonizing the over 7,000 islands making up the Philippines the Spanish colonial officials and missionary friars introduced the reduccion system: meaning that wherever the missionary friars had built their mission stations and churches, baptized Filipinos were urged to settle around these structures and form urban settlements. Such settlements became the poblacion (town) replete with a church plaza and colonial administrative buildings. In many cases the friars, were also expected to be the local colonial administrators. In fairness to these colonizers and missionaries, it needs to be acknowledged that by the time the colonization of the Philippines took place many of the colonial reforms for which Bartholemé De Las Casas O.P. had agitated were already being promoted by King Felipe II. Added to this, the first bishop of Manila, Domingo Salazar O.P, was a disciple of De Las Casas and did much to try to ensure that the reforms were implemented in the Philippines. Slavery was effectively abolished (yet subjects of the king were expected to offer their labor, free of charge, for various colonial activities, including army duty) and missionaries were expected to learn the local language and respect cultural traditions. For this reason, Filipinos continued to use their own languages rather than Spanish.

In due time the reduccion system would have the effect of transforming Philippine society into three fairly distinct groups: lowland Christian Filipinos, Indigenous Peoples and Muslims.

 1) Those who (at least publicly) renounced their ancestral beliefs and were baptized into the Catholic Church and urged to live within the colonial poblacion became what we refer to today as the Lowland, Christian Filipinos. This is by far the majority of the population today. While the lowland Filipinos were required to form the back-bone of the Spanish colonial enterprise by providing their labor and serving in the colonial army expeditions, over the 333 years of Spanish rule, many also resisted colonialism and rebelled against Spanish abuses. With the arrival of the Americans in 1898, these lowlanders would be the first to benefit from the US colonial education system and would go on to dominate almost all government positions in the new Independent Republic.   

2) Those who continued to practice their ancestral beliefs and cultural ways of life rather than embrace the new colonial religion came to comprise the ethno-linguistic groups who collectively refer to themselves today as the Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines. The populations who share this common identity as Indigenous Peoples are ethno-linguistically highly diverse and scattered throughout the archipelago. What their belief systems tend to hold in common is an intense affinity and respect for the natural environments in which they live. They were variously referred to by the Spanish colonizers as infieles (infidels) and ‘wild tribes’ in accounts by American colonizers. Since the arrival of the Americans until now, increasing numbers of Indigenous Peoples have converted to Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic), while many hold on to their traditional beliefs and practices. American colonization ushered in a new era of rapid deforestation of the vast mountain ranges for commercial purposes. With the unceasing incursion of a steadily growing population of (Christian) lowlanders into their ancestral lands, many Indigenous Peoples choose to move higher and higher into the mountains. This often results in being farther and farther removed from basic government services, such as education. Not only are Indigenous Peoples’ lands being increasingly taken from them as mining companies from as far as China, Australia and Canada denude the rainforests in an endless search for minerals, sadly, these diverse ethno-linguistic groups continue to be discriminated against and are often labelled ‘ignorant’, ‘uneducated’ and ‘uncivilized’. I will always remember an incident I witnessed first-hand while attending a public concert in a town with a large minority of Indigenous Subaanens. When it was announced that a Subaanen group would perform a cultural dance the comments I heard from the lowland Christians varied from: “Here come the monkeys down from the forest” to “cover your noses from the smell of these ignorant tribesmen!” Divisions and stigmas, once planted by centuries of colonialization, are very hard to up-root.

3) Islam had been practiced in the Philippines since the 14th century when it was introduced by missionaries from Malaysia and Indonesia and was well established throughout the archipelago by the time Christianity arrived, particularly in Mindanao and Sulu. Those who practiced Islam had no interest in swapping their familiar faith and way of life for a religion that was foreign and incomprehensible to them. This refusal to embrace the religion of the king of Spain was regarded as high treason. To this day Muslims are often suspected by Christians of being treacherous and are often labelled with the Spanish term traydor (traitor). One of the obligations of being a baptized male subject of the king was that, at any time, you were expected to join the colonial military expeditions that were frequently organized to try to subjugate the fairly sophisticated sultanates of these ‘treacherous’ Muslim ‘infidels’. Sadly, over the centuries of bloody encounters between the Spanish colonial armies and the ever-defiant Muslim forces, ordinary Filipino Muslims and ordinary Filipino Christian lowlanders (army recruits) who faced each other in battle came to regard each other as arch-enemies. I often hear Visayan Christians recall that as children, the narrative often used by their parents and grandparents to prevent them from wandering outside at night was to warn them: ‘Don’t wander outside the house in the dark because you will be snatched away by the Moros, put into a sack, taken off to Marawi and forced to plant ginger’!  The same colonial evangelizers who had brought the Gospel of peace, fraternity and universal love to the Philippines had also brought with it the seeds of division, discrimination, conflict and mutual suspicion.


Towards reconciliation and solidarity

In 1975, at the request of Pope Paul VI, the Prelature of Marawi (homeland of the Meranao Muslims) was established in order that a community of Christians living in this overwhelmingly Muslim part of Mindanao would be a reconciling presence and a means to building bridges of friendship and trust in the midst of a climate of mutual suspicion and animosity. It was during a particularly violent period in the history of relations between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao that Bishop Benny Tudtud, and a group of Columbans and other missionaries and lay people took up this challenge. This work of Dialogue of Life and Faith was rightly regarded as a Gospel imperative. How could we proclaim that Christ is our Peace and not do something to try to help bring peace to a war-torn Mindanao? After centuries of division, mistrust and conflict between Christians and Muslims, our faith in the One God/Allah demanded that we work together towards reconciliation. Among the Columbans, Rufus Halley volunteered to work in a Muslim store and immerse himself in the Meranao Muslim language and culture. Kevin McHugh worked tirelessly to ensure that the two Catholic schools in Marawi Prelature would be venues for building friendship and understanding among future generations of the Muslim and Christian students who attended them. Des Hartford and then Terry Twohig lived with Meranao Muslim families, in much the same way as Rufus did. I had the privilege, some-time later, of being able to do the same myself over the course of many years, as well as being part of a team of Christians and Muslims who conduct peace-building workshops for communities experiencing inter-ethno-religious conflict. This immersion in the lives, language and culture of the Meranao Muslims has been with the sole aim of facilitating peaceful relations between the Christian and Muslim communities in Mindanao. We missionaries have merely been catalysts for healing and reconciliation between these communities

Columbians Fathers Paul and Enrique

Columbans Paul Glynn (left) and Enrique Escobar (second from right) join other members of the Interfaith Forum for Peace, Harmony and Solidarity, Cagayan de Oro


In more recent years Columban priests and lay missionaries continue to be at the forefront of various initiatives for building greater friendship, mutual understanding and solidarity between Christians, Muslims and Indigenous Peoples. Enrique Escobar, Lanie Tamatawale, Latai Muller, Mereani Nailevu and others continue our Columban involvement in the Cagayan de Oro Interfaith Forum for Peace, Harmony and Solidarity. Rex Rocamora has plans to learn the Meranao Muslim language and immerse himself in their culture so as to be a reconciling presence in the continuing efforts to break down the centuries-old walls of mutual mistrust.

Sean Martin relates that one of the fruits of Vatican II was the insight to recognize that the Indigenous Subaanen are a dignified people who were not just there to be baptized and assimilated into the Visayan Lowland Catholic culture. He recalls that the Columban Sisters learned the Subaanen language and lived and worked with the Subaanen. Sr. Winnie Apao continues to do so today. Bishop Tony Tobias of Pagadian spent time with the Columban Sisters and incorporated some Subaanen symbols into the baptism ceremony. Brendan Kelly has likewise learned the Subaanen language and continues to be immersed in their culture and way of life to this day. Donie O’Dea did likewise with the Aeta Indigenous People in Zambales, Luzon for many years. We Columbans (among countless others) have learned from the Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines that the environment needs to be cared for. In various locations around the archipelago, we have been able to partner with diverse Indigenous Peoples communities in the re-foresting of their ancestral lands. 

Subaanen Ministry

Subaanen Ministry, Our Lady of Lourdes Mission Station

Don Victoriano Chiongbian, Misamis Occidental, Mindanao

The events that first brought Christianity to our shores also brought much division, discrimination, sowing the first seeds of conflict between the Christians, Muslims and Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines. Until such time as the deep wounds of these divisions and conflicts are fully healed and these injustices are righted, the process of truly Christianizing the Philippines will not yet be complete. Thankfully there are countless Filipino Christians, Muslims and Indigenous Peoples who are committed to working together to make that happen. May our One God continue to inspire them to do so!