PHILIPPINES - After more than 17 years of negotiations, the Philippine government has finally signed a peace agreement with a militant Islamic separatist group.
The historic peace agreement was signed by members of the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The document is officially known as a the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.
Bangsamoro means the land of the Moros, which is the ethnic name of the Muslims.
It gives the Bansamoro the right to wealth and power sharing and the right to self determination, but under federal control.
"The role of the MILF may be likened to a gatekeeper for the transition. It's not the government of the MILF but the government of the Bangsamoro," MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim said.
During the course of negotiations several groups opposed the peace pact.
In September of last year, some members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) sieged the southern city of Zamboanga, leaving some 200 dead and displacing thousands of residents.
The uprising was the result of its leader Nur Misuari's dismay over the peace agreement because he claims this has bypassed a peace treaty that the government made with his MNLF group in 1996.
The MILF, which represents Muslims in the present peace agreement, is the biggest breakaway group of the MNLF.
Paramanan Hajul was one of the victims of the war in Zamboanga.
"Our house was just 100 meters away from the fighting between the MNLF and government soldiers. It was very traumatic for my family and that is why I am so happy that the peace agreement was finalized," he said.
"I believe that there is always an intelligent and peaceful solution to a conflict instead of using violence," he said.
There are other Muslim rebel groups to reckon with before this peace process can be successfully implemented.
But the government, the MILF, and other stakeholders, including churches, are believing the agreement is a key to the lasting peace and progess in the predominantly Muslim region of Mindanao.
Bishop Efraim Tendero of the Phillippines Council of Evangelical Churches said Christian involvement for finding peaceful solutions for the decade-old conflict in Mindanao helped end the insurgency that left an estimated 150,000 people dead since 1970s.
"They consulted with us and in that consultation, we had a no-holds-barred discussion. There will be freedom of religion, freedom of worship, freedom of expression. That will be guaranteed," Bishop Tenderp said.
"Then the Muslim leader said can you pray for us. Can you imagine a Muslim leader asking a Christian bishop to pray," Tenderp continued.
The country's congressional leaders must approve the peace plan before it can become law.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III fully supports the plan and gave a warning to anyone who attempts to derail it.
"I will not let peace be snatched from my people again. Not now, when we have already undertaken the most difficult and most significant steps to achieve it," President Aquino lll warned.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement has the support of the president and perhaps Congress, but because of the opposition from the different Islamic groups, it may still be a long and tough journey before peace in Southern Philippines will become a reality.