CAMP AGUINALDO, Quezon City--The Armed Forces of the Philippines' Chief of Staff General Gilbert Gapay met with local government officials and religious leaders of Sulu today, December 10, to strengthen the military's relationship with the Tausug muslim community and the people of Sulu.

General Gapay was met by Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan, First District Representative Samier Tan, and several municipal mayors and Ulamas of Sulu in the dialogue held at the Sumadja Hall in the Provincial Capitol.

"Again I would like to clarify that I never said that the madaris are spreading radicalization or sowing terrorism among its students," General Gapay said, referring to an October 13 statement where he said that "Madrasas and other schools in Sulu" are being monitored by the military.

"This is a call for unity, cooperation, and collaboration to protect and shield vulnerable sectors of our society from these attempts to infiltrate our educational system," General Gapay added later.

Joining him were top regional military commanders Western Mindanao Command LtGen Corleto Vinluan Jr and 11th Infantry Division Commander MGen William Gonzales and senior officers from the General Headquarters.

Also present were USTADZ ABDUL MUHAIMIN ABUBAKAR, Chairman of Sulu Ulama Council for Peace and Development; JUL-ASIRI ABIRIN, Mufti of Sulu; and ABDULGAFAR MANGABONG, Head of Tablig.

"We in the Armed Forces of the Philippines, kaming mga kasundaluhan, believe that Islam is a religion that espouses peace above all matters," General Gapay added.

The AFP Chief also emphasized the role of Muftis, Imams, and local chief executives in spreading moderate Islamic teachings "to restore the glory of Islam."

He also promoted the National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, which calls for political and socio-economic intervention to address the root causes of conflict in Western Mindanao.

"The AFP recognizes that the Madaris are religious educational institutions through which the Muslim community ensures that the future acquires the right knowledge about Islam. We seek to preserve this peaceful Islamic religious tradition and identity," General Gapay added.

Meanwhile, Governor Tan extended his warm welcome to General Gapay and his staff for visiting Sulu and coming face-to-face for a dialogue with religious and local leaders, which, according to him, was the first for a Chief of Staff of the AFP.

"Malaki ang pasasalamat natin na nandirito si General Gapay. Siya lamang ang Chief of Staff na humarap sa grupo na religious at mga chief executive," Governor Tan said.

"Alam naman natin may statement si General Gapay a month or so ago that was maybe taken out of context or he was misunderstood kaya mas maganda na nandito si General to tell us on what he meant. I think he is here to bring goodwill," Governor Tan added.

The religious leaders in attendance also welcomed the Chief of Staff's visit and his intention to clarify on his earlier statement.

"Kung anumang kahulugan, para sa amin yon ay nangangahulugang sa pagka-gandang loob at mabuting layunin ng Heneral na kaharapin ang mga taga rito lalong lalo na ang mga religious leader upang liwanagin ang pagkamaling pag-unawa iba sa kanyang pahayag o sinabi tungkol sa Madrasa," said Sulu Grand Mufti Sharif Jul-Asiri Abirin.

"Alhamdulillah malinaw na ang lahat sana gabayan tayo at pagpalain ng Panginoon Diyos!" the grand mufti added.

(Photos by SN1 VILUAN/PAO, AFP)