Religion in the Philippines

Filipinos Gather To Celebrate Good Friday
A Catholic devotee is hoisted up onto a cross by participants during a reenactment of the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday on April 3, 2015 in San Pedro Cutud village in Pampanga province, Philippines. Dondi Tawatao / Getty Images

As a result of over 300 years of colonization and fierce conversion efforts by Spanish Catholics, more than 80% of Filipino people are Roman Catholic, making Catholicism the main religion of the Philippines. It is the only predominantly Christian country in all of Asia. 

Of the remaining religious groups, approximately 8.2% of Filipinos are Protestant and 5.6% are Muslim. The number of people who practice tribal or folk religions hovers around 2%, and 1.9% of the population identify as “other”, a designation that includes Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews. Less than 1% of the population is religiously unaffiliated. 

Key Takeaways

  • The Philippines is the only predominantly Christian country in Asia, a result of 300 years of Spanish colonization.
  • Protestantism was a vehicle for the transfer of American values after the United States seized colonial control of the Philippines in 1898.
  • The Islamic minority in the southern islands of the Philippines successfully resisted centuries of Catholic conversion.
  • The ongoing conflict between Muslims and Catholics in the Philippines marks the contemporary religious climate of the country. 

Colonization and Catholicism 

Motivated by the lure of the spice trade and access to the Chinese silk market, Portuguese navigator (under the Spanish flag) Fernand Magellan was the first European to set foot on the islands of the Philippines, though he was killed in an altercation with native people before he could complete his journey. By 1560, the Spanish colonizers were firmly established in the Philippines—named in honor of the Spanish King Philip II. Clergymen quickly followed Magellan’s original voyage, as conversion of native populations was a priority for the Spanish in southeast Asia.

Colonizers found Manila, the capital, to have a great harbor that allowed them to establish a ship trade, using the silver from the mines of Mexico as forms of payment. Little interest in land products led the Spanish government to allocate large properties to members of the clergy, who would then administer over the local population, providing academic and ecclesiastic education. The speed and force of catholicization made the Philippines the only majority-Christian country in Asia, a designation it maintains today.

Pope Francis Holds Mass At Manila Cathedral
Pope Francis waves to the faithful upon his arrival at Manila Cathedral on January 16, 2015 in Manila, Philippines. Lam Yik Fei / Getty Images

Protestantism and Other Christian Minorities

Protestant missionaries did not arrive in the Philippines in the early 20th century, though the American Bible Society made attempts to smuggle translated Bibles into the country during the late 1800s. After the Spanish-American War, the United States appropriated colonial control over the Philippines and established a core of Protestant missionaries. The first minister of the Philippines was named in 1899.

The majority-Catholic population of the Philippines was viewed by the American population as not truly Christian, as a result of the anti-Catholic sentiment that existed in the United States at the turn of the century. However, evangelical efforts by Protestant missionaries lacked the force and fervor of their Catholic predecessors because the American people feared conversion efforts would lead to the immigration of nonwhite Catholics. For this reason, Protestant mission work was marked by a certain racism, though the Protestant missionaries supported the development of a public school system.

Protestantism’s true mark on the Philippines was in the transmission of American values, including interest in sports, music, and civil organization. The YMCA, for example, was established in Manila in 1904.

The National Council of Churches in the Philippines, a community of Protestant churches, was formed in 1963. The Council is still the representative for the Protestant minority groups in the Philippines.

Islam in the Philippines

Islam is the oldest monotheistic religion in the Philippines. The first recorded Muslim trader arrived in the southern islands of the Philippines in 1380, and religious leaders and traders continued to travel to the region via ancient trade routes from the Middle East, across India and the Indian Ocean, and onward into Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Ramadan Begins In The Philippines
Filipino Muslims pray outside a Mosque in Datu Saudi town as Muslims begin fasting for Ramadan on June 27, 2014 in Maguindanao, Philippines. Jeoffrey Maitem / Getty Images

By the time the Spanish arrived at the beginning of the 16th century, Manila was ruled by a Muslim, and the populations of the southern island Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago islands were thoroughly Islamic. Spanish-Catholic and Filipino-Muslim relations were defined by the wars between the Christians and the Moors that inhabited the Iberian peninsula prior to the Age of Exploration.

The final Moorish stronghold in Spain fell at the end of the 15th century, and the Spanish reached the Philippines shortly after, leaving little time to separate the animosity for the Moors from the Muslim population in the Philippines.

The Spanish colonizers labeled the southern Filipino Muslims moros, after the Moors of the Iberian peninsula. Southern Filipino Muslims adopted the term and still use it to define themselves in the contemporary Philippines. 

The southern Muslim populations resisted Catholicism for three centuries of the Spanish colonization period. The United States, in an attempt to unify the Philippines after taking control of the islands, met with heavy resistance in the Muslim communities. The American forces responded with violence, and the Muslims suffered heavy casualties. However, the communities maintained fairly autonomous control until the United States pulled out from its colonial holdings in 1946.

The ongoing conflict between Muslims and Catholics in the Philippines marks the contemporary religious climate of the country.

Filipino Tribal Religions

Very little is known about the pre-colonial religions of the Philippines. What information researchers have is linked to archeological findings and the practices of contemporary Filipinos.

While the Catholic Church had no more than 400 active clergymen in the Philippines at a given time, these priests were able to draw in and convert young Philippines with the lure of education. The conversion and assimilation efforts of the Catholic Church all but wiped out the indigenous, tribal beliefs of native Filipinos, but some elements of Filipino tribal religion and worship permeated the Catholic practice, creating a religious hybrid. 

It is from these hybrid religious practices that researchers determined that native Filipinos practiced various forms of animism and maintained strong connections to the natural and spiritual worlds. 

Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism: The Other Religious Minorities

Holi Festival 2014 in Manila
Participants throw colored powder in the air during the Holi festival in Pasay city, south of Manila, Philippines, March 16, 2014. The Holi Festival is one of the major festivals in India, celebrating the turn of the seasons from winter to spring. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

There are no written records of the entrance of Buddhism or Hinduism in the Philippines, but archeological evidence suggests both were fairly influential in the region by the ninth century. Researchers have discovered Buddha statues in northern parts of the Philippines, an indication that Buddhism likely arrived through India and China rather than the south. By contrast, ancient pottery inscribed with Sanskrit was found in the southern, majority-Muslim parts of the country, indicating that Hindu arrived via Indonesia and Malaysia. Additionally, traditional folklore, particularly of rural communities, features parallels to traditional Buddhist and Hindu stories.

Judaism was prohibited in the Philippines from the Spanish Inquisition onward, and forced conversion was the policy for all Jewish people. After the United States seized colonial power in the Philippines, Jews were permitted to organize and practice openly. During World War II, Jewish refugees fled from Europe, seeking asylum in the Philippines. Though asylum was granted by the United States, the Japanese interned Jews as enemies of the state during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. As few as 300 Jewish people survived in the Philippines after the liberation of the country, and the population of Jews in the contemporary Philippines remains low.

Contemporary Religion in the Philippines

Religious tensions between the Muslim population in the southern islands of the Philippines and the Catholic populations in the northern islands has dramatically slowed the growth of the Filipino economy over the course of the 20th century. Though the central government of the Philippines, located in Manila, has maintained religious tolerance in order to keep the peace, increasing numbers of Catholics are settling in predominantly Islamic communities in the south, creating tension and conflict between the central Manila government and Islamic separatists groups.

Fueled by identity politics and violence within the region, the people of the island of Mindanao passed a referendum in January 2019 to become an autonomous region in the Philippines. The region will be called Bangsamoro, or a nation of Moors.

Sources

  • Clymer, Kenton J. Protestant Missionaries in the Philippines, 1898-1916: an Inquiry into the American Colonial Mentality. University of Illinois Press, 1986.
  • Federspiel, Howard M. “Islam and Muslims in the Southern Territories of the Philippine Islands During the American Colonial Period (1898 to 1946).” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 29, no. 02, 1998, p. 340.
  • Osborne, Milton E. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. 11th ed., Allen & Unwin, 2013.
  • “Protestant Christianity in the Philippines.” Religious Literacy Project, Havard Divinity School , 2019.
  • “Religions in Philippines.” Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, Pew Research Center , 2016.
  •  Somers Heidhues, Mary. Southeast Asia: A Concise History. Thames & Hudson, 2000.