MANILA - The Philippines government and the nation's largest Muslim rebel group took the first steps to creating a lasting peace in the war-torn southern Philippines this week.
If the agreement holds, it could mean peace for the first time in 40 years.
Emotions ran high among several Muslim groups during the signing ceremony with the Philippine government. After 16 years of talks and failed agreements, negotiators say the latest peace plan will end an Islamic insurgency in the south by creating a new Islamic political entity within the Republic of the Philippines.
What's it like for Christians living in the mostly Muslim area? Christian World News' Gary Lane, who has been to the Philippines several times, has more, following this report.
Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said the agreement gives his people a measure of autonomy.
"Today after almost 16 years of hard negotiations interspersed with armed confrontations on the ground, we have inked the most important document in the chapter of our history. A landmark document that restores to our people their Bangsamoro identity and their homeland; their right to govern themselves," Ibrahim said.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III also believes the agreement will bring lasting peace to the region.
"Join me in imagining a Mindanao finally free from strife for people (to) achieve their fullest potential," he said.
"Children who had to witness immeasurable suffering will now get to witness a harvest," he continued. "Families who once cowered in fear of gunshots will emerge from their homes to a bright new dawn of equity, justice, and peace."
The 40-year war between the government and the MILF has claimed more than 120,000 lives and left more than two million people displaced from their homes.
Some residents fled the area when the government launched an all-out campaign against the rebels in 2000. Though they now live in safety, they are haunted by bad memories.
Alisah Paher took her family and left after her relatives died in the fighting.
"When the soldiers bombed our mosque, my two brothers, sister-in-law and nephew were killed. I was also being harassed by soldiers and that's why we decided to flee," she said.
Mariam Taher suffered an even greater tragedy.
"We had to run and live in the evacuation center. There, my baby got sick with dengue fever. She died because we did not get any medical help," she said.
Not all agree that the peace deal is a good idea, but ordinary Muslims who suffered the devastation of war say they are willing to give peace and progress a chance.
Bishop Efraim Tendero, national director of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, said the peace agreement is God's answer to many years of prayer. He's urging church leaders to get behind the effort and help it succeed.
"We need to pray that God will move the government, the people involved and everyone," Tendero said.
"Let's have that hope that there will be continuous progress for peace," he said. "Jesus said that we have to love our neighbor. Let us love our neighbor... (and pray that) the Bangsamoro nation would be our neighbor."