In Christian-majority Philippines, religion not the only factor splitting views over Israel-Gaza war

Jennifer managed to raise 7,600 pesos (US$450) with this crocheting project for the refugees and for the United Nations’ Children in Gaza crisis campaign.

Some of the coasters Jennifer sold to friends and relatives to raise funds for Palestinians. Photo: Raissa Robles
Like many Filipinos, Jennifer has strong opinions about the fighting in the Middle East, triggered by Hamas’ assault on Israel on October 7, and the latter’s retaliatory attacks on Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

“[Israelis] have the right to make incursions into the West Bank and Gaza to retrieve their hostages, but they don’t have the right to indiscriminately kill civilians, which is what they are doing,” she said.

Jennifer’s heartfelt opposition to Israel’s actions runs counter to the official stance of the Philippine government. Shortly after the outbreak of violence, President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr told Israel’s ambassador to Manila, Ilan Fluss, that the Philippines “will always stand with Israel in this war against the inhuman terrorist attacks by Hamas”.
Some Filipinos share Jennifer’s sentiments, including those who staged a rally in front of the Israeli embassy in Manila after the Philippines abstained from a United Nations resolution calling for a humanitarian truce in Gaza, making it the only country in Southeast Asia not to support the measure.
But in a country of 120 million with a Christian-majority population, supporters of the Palestinian cause find themselves in the minority, with even critics of Marcos Jnr and his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte supporting Israel’s counterstrikes in Palestinian conclaves. In extreme cases, some who agree with the government’s support for Israel have even advocated the mass extermination of Palestinians on social media.
Catholic devotees in Manila take part in a procession marking the feast day of the Black Nazarene on January 9. Photo: EPA-EFE
One notable example is the Philippines’ special envoy to China and ambassador to Britain, Teodoro Locsin Jnr, who said on X that “Palestinian children should be killed [because] they might grow up to become as gullible as innocent Palestinians letting Hamas launch rockets at Israel”.

A lawyer, lawmaker and former foreign secretary, Locsin has since deleted his post and apologised, but a local Muslim group has filed a disbarment case against him, and the department he used to head has distanced itself from his post.

According to Jose Antonio Custodio, a defence analyst and fellow at the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers, Filipinos are emotionally invested in the conflict because “from the formative years of every Filipino-Christian, Israel and the Jews play a very significant role” in shaping their world views.

“The religious highlight for a Filipino-Christian is to make pilgrimages to Israel aside from Rome,” the 56-year-old said.

Data from Israel’s tourism ministry showed 34,000 Filipinos visited the country in 2019 and even more were expected to arrive last year – based on the 19,300 Filipinos who visited from January to June – until the war broke out.

‘Israel is manna’: Asia’s migrant workers return despite Gaza war dangers

Likewise, political activist Nuelle Duterte suggested the heated discourse among Filipinos over the Middle East conflict “boils down to religion and race”.

“Perhaps it has to do with Filipinos, being Catholics and Christians, identifying with Israel being the promised land,” said Nuelle, a New Zealand-based psychiatrist whose uncle is Rodrigo Duterte.

“Based on comments I read [online], there’s an attachment to biblical Israelites, a belief that the bible is a historical book which says Israel belongs to people of Jewish faith, and prejudice towards Muslims and people from the Middle East [Arabs] are the core reasons for people’s pro-Israel stance.”

The belief that Jews are the “chosen people” destined to occupy the Holy Land and build a “third temple” in Jerusalem to replace the second one destroyed in the 7th century is shared by some Christian Filipinos as part of an apocalyptic prophecy involving the return of the Messiah.

While the Philippines is predominantly Catholic, it also has a large Muslim minority based mainly in the southern provinces, which resisted Spanish and American colonisers, and full assimilation to the Philippine republic in 1946. The region has endured separatist insurgencies for decades, and even after a peace deal was reached with the government in 2014, some rebels still carry out attacks.

Popular support for the Palestinian cause is stronger in the Philippines’ south, with thousands of people joining demonstrations against Israel’s actions in places like Cotabato City on the island of Mindanao. Smaller rallies have taken place in Manila, mostly led by human rights activists.

People march in a pro-Palestinian rally in Cotabato City, Mindanao on October 16, 2023. Photo: AFP

Custodio said the support for Israel could stem from the country being a source of economic betterment for thousands of Filipinos. “[Some] 30,000 Filipinos work as caregivers in Israel and they support hundreds of thousands of Filipinos back in the Philippines,” he said.

“One of those murdered by Hamas was a Filipino caregiver who bravely and selflessly stood by her patient instead of fleeing [and] four Filipinos died during the October 7 Hamas attack,” Custodio said, adding that this generated sympathy and anger back home.

Walden Bello, an adjunct professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton, noted that social media had changed the perspectives of younger Filipinos from their parents’ generation because it helped elevate the narratives of the Palestinian people.

“Many youths [today] have relatives in the Middle East, Europe and the US, and they have absorbed the more positive Palestinian narrative,” said the 78-year-old human rights activist.

Government statistics on contractual deployments appear to support Bello’s assessment, with data showing that of the 1.96 million overseas Filipino workers on short-term work contracts in 2022, 54.8 per cent worked in Arab countries.

‘Unbelievable loyalty’: Filipino nurse stayed with patient during Hamas attack

Bello observed that most Filipinos condemned Hamas’ initial attack, but as Israel retaliated without let-up, many young people started researching the issue and “then they began to discover the real history of Israel and Palestine. What becomes very evident is the [Palestinian] history of dispossession, of being turned out of their homes and of hoping one day to go back”.
Nuelle Duterte, a vocal critic of her uncle’s deadly war on drugs who has publicly expressed her sympathy for Palestinians, said she noticed some critics who had previously opposed the former president’s controversial rights record had now turned against her to accuse her of being “pro-terrorist”.

“I get more pushback from anti-Digong people regarding my thoughts on Gaza and Palestinians,” she said, referring to Rodrigo Duterte’s nickname. “I’ve been told I’m exactly like Digong because they think I’m pro-terrorist and don’t care about the murders on October 7.”

Nuelle noted the irony of this, considering Rodrigo had condemned Palestinians. On a talk show in October after Hamas’ initial attack, he had said Israel should turn Gaza into “ the world’s biggest cemetery”.

“It’s interesting to me how the people who promote continued mass killing of Palestinians in Gaza can’t see how similar they sound to Digong, who spearheaded the mass killing of drug addicts and pushers in the Philippines,” Nuelle said.

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