Philippines - Religion

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Two religious buildings, and a religious man dressed in robes and mitre waving to a crowd

The Philippines is one of only two predominately Christian nations in Asia ( East Timor is the other) with about 82-84% of its population practicing Roman Catholics, and another 9% belonging to various Protestant denominations. About 5% of the population, mostly in the island of Mindanao, is Muslim, while the remainder is either Buddhist (mostly among the Chinese community) or still practicing tribal animistic beliefs. While Christianity has been the major religion in the Philippines since the beginning of the Spanish colonial period in 1565, it has always been mixed with traditional animistic beliefs and practices, giving Philippine Catholicism a particular national character. Religion in the Philippines is not an abstract belief system, but is a group of shared experiences, rituals and ceremonies that provide community unity, bonds between un-related persons, and extra-family linkages of various kinds. Thus, religion has strong political and economic overtones and connections.

Another characteristic of religion in the Philippines, whether it is Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Islam, is that its practices openly incorporate animistic experiences and practices. For example, when the Spanish arrived in the 16 th century, most Filipinos worshipped a variety of nature spirits who could bring harm or good fortune; both needed to be contacted by spiritual leaders known as shamans to avoid danger and to bring about prosperity. Illness and bad luck were caused by malevolent spirits, while good weather, many children and good crops were caused by the intercession of benevolent spirits, often in the form of ancestors. Thus, as the Filipinos converted to Catholicism, they simply transferred these beliefs to the more efficacious Catholic Church. Sprits became saints, Mass and its rituals became used instead of traditional propitiation rituals, and priests became the new intermediaries between people and God and the saints). Likewise Islam has also absorbed various indigenous elements and members make offerings to spirits who they believe can help with health, family and crops and incorporate traditional elements into rituals such as birth, marriage and death.

In addition, the nation is home to a host of messianic spiritual movements, many of which have developed long lasting institutions. These movements generally share a concept that the end of the world fast approaching, exhibit a disdain and distrust of modern life, foster supernatural beliefs of various kinds and operate with an authoritarian charismatic messiah figure around which the movement is organized. Thousands of Filipinos have been caught up in these movements which offer a renewed sense of community in the face of rapid social changes. Two of the most popular and long lasting of these movements are the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, founded by Gregorio Aglipay with the support of revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo during the revolt against Spain and the conflicts with American forces at the end of the 19 th century, and the Iglesia ni Cristo, founded in 1914 by Felix Manalo Ysagun. In recent years, the Iglesia ni Cristo, a puritanical and authoritarian church, has grown greatly and has established churches around the world in the Filipino Diaspora.

NOTE: The following two websites are the official websites of these churches; they are NOT scholarly websites but will give you an understanding of these movements from the standpoint of the believers.

To read the official website of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, please click on:

To read the official website of Iglesia ni Cristo, please click on:

The most important religious organization in the Philippines, now and for the past 450 years, is the Roman Catholic Church. After slipping in popularity with the Philippine independence movement at the end of the 19 th century, and the advent of Protestant missionaries as the Americans assumed control of the Philippines, this church has bounced back and expanded in the 20 th century. This success can be directly attributed to the Vatican’s decision to divest itself of control of large Church estates, and to encourage the Filipinos to become members of the clergy. Today, most Catholic clergy is Filipino, all of the hierarchy in the dioceses is Filipino and the church is supported by a large number of parochial schools. Church rituals and events play an important role in the life cycle of Filipinos and Filipinas and the church has a uniquely personal role in the lives of its followers.

As mentioned above, when Catholicism arrived in the Philippines, it amalgamated with many traditional practices. Thus, Filipinos have an intensely personal relationship with God who is worshipped as a father figure and a deep sense of gratitude toward Jesus the loving son who died for the sins of each individual, a debt which no amount of sacrifice can ever repay. The Virgin Mary is often the central figure in ritual and prayer and she is venerated as a compassionate mother figure. The traditional Catholic ceremonies and observances are prevalent in the Philippines, and this can be seen in such political statements as the 1987 Constitution which bans abortion; in addition, the Church opposes contraception in spite of the high birth rate in the country. In addition to celebrating the regular Sundays and other church days, the Filipinos have added certain folk observances to the church calendar. For example, the Fiesta, a yearly event celebrated in each town or rural area on the name day of the patron saint for that location, is participated in by the entire population of the town or area and thus serves to reinforce community solidarity as well as the teachings of the Church. While a Mass is always included, much of the celebration revolves around such social events as a communal feast, parade, dances, basketball tournament, cockfights, and a carnival.

The Filipino celebration of both Christmas and Easter, blend elements of traditional Catholicism with traditional Filipino customs overlain with Chinese and American addenda. For example, people attend misas de gallo (early morning Christmas Mass) for nine days leading up to Christmas; during this time they decorate their homes with Chinese style lanterns and go caroling. On Christmas Eve, everyone attends Mass which is the culmination of the misas de gallo. The rest of the Christmas season is devoted to visiting family and friends and strengthening community ties. During the Lenten and Eat season, the Philippines are famous for the public reading of the Passion narrative, the performance of Passion plays and the parades on Good Friday, during which penitents scourge and sometimes crucify themselves to show their sorrow and thankfulness for Christ’s sacrifice made for them.

For a BBC News account with pictures of Easter crucifixions and flagellations please click on:

Protestantism came to the Philippines with the end of Spanish colonialism and the beginning of American control of the country. At one point, it is estimated that almost 200 different Protestant groups were operating in the country. In spite of large scale Protestant evangelism for over a century and in spite of the fact that upward mobility was connected with being Protestant during the American occupation, conversion rate was slow and occurred mostly among indigenous peoples who had not been previously converted to Catholicism. Today, only a small percentage of Filipinos are Protestant, about 8-9% and many of them belong, not to mainstream Protestant churches but to fundamentalist and evangelical churches. Protestant missionaries, however, had a great impact on the Philippines in terms of education and medicine (as they did in other countries). Protestant churches set up schools, clinics and hospitals and stimulated the construction of others. They also were responsible for the creation of institutions that evolved into important Colleges and Universities, including the Central Philippine University, Silliman University, the Philippine Christian College and Dansalan Junior College.

Today about 5% of the Filipinos are Muslim and many of these, concentrated in the Southern island of Mindanao, are engaged in a struggle to form their own autonomous state. Islam first came to the Philippines with Muslim traders and Sufi missionaries, in the 14 th century. The Arab traders founded sultanates in the Southern Philippines as they did in Malaysia and Indonesia and many of their subjects converted. The coming of the Spanish in the 16 th Century, ended Arabic domination but many Muslims refused to convert to Catholicism, in spite of pressure to do so. Like Christianity, Islam absorbed many indigenous elements into itself; for example, Filipino Muslim women play a strong role in society as they did in indigenous society. Today, the world-wide Muslim revival has both fueled the Moro Separatist movement, which has often taken violent actions, and has given the Filipino Muslims greater understanding of their tradition. Many Philippine Muslims practice the five pillars of Islam (confession of faith, daily prayer, alms-giving, fasting, and pilgrimage), attend Quranic schools, and celebrate Muslim holidays. Today Muslims are divided into those who work with the present government for reforms and more autonomy and those who engage in the guerilla warfare hoping for a separatist state. (It should be noted that the Philippine Muslims had also fought against the Spanish, and against the Americans before and after World War II, so this conflict is not a new one).

For a website on the history of this dispute, including environmental consequences, please click on the following.

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