COTABATO CITY, Philippines - Communist guerrillas have offered to rest their guns during the visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines from Jan. 15-19, with guerrilla leaders saying most members of the guerrilla group New People's Army (NPA) are Catholics, too, who wanted to pay respect to the head of the Catholic world.
In a statement, a rebel spokesperson said Catholics in the NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), are "as excited as those in the mainstream of society" about the papal visit.
"Since most of our fighters are Catholics, it was just fitting to pay respect during Pope Francis' visit in the country by extending the ceasefire," said the statement, quoting rebel leader Efren Aksasato, who speaks for at least five NPA guerrilla fronts in Mindanao.
Aksasato said in observance of the visit of the Argentine pontiff, the NPA would not launch any attacks from Jan. 15-19.
"We are extending the ceasefire (period) until after the visit of Pope Francis," he said.
In an earlier advisory on its website, CPP said the ceasefire in connection with Pope Francis' visit would start 12:01am of Jan. 15 until 11:59pm of Jan. 19.
During those days, the CPP advisory said, "all units of the New People's Army and people's militia are ordered to desist from carrying out offensive operations" against military, police and government militia targets.
The rebel movement, which believes that religion is the opium of the people, said the ceasefire was "in deference to the upcoming visit of Roman Catholic patriarch Pope Francis, which the Filipino people look forward to as an opportunity for religious celebration."
But while the ceasefire is in effect, CPP ordered NPA to remain in "active defence mode."
"All units of the NPA and people's militia must always be prepared to take the option of engaging the aggressive units of the enemy in self-defence in order to prevent them from committing acts of brutality and repression with impunity," said CPP.
The guerrillas are waging the world's longest Maoist rebellion, hoping to topple the government and replace it with a socialist regime.
Efforts have been made to bring guerrilla leaders and the government to the negotiating table, but talks faltered amid accusations from both camps of insincerity and government refusal to heed rebel preconditions for the talks.
Recently, overtures had been made that raised hopes the peace talks could resume, but both sides officially appeared reluctant to be optimistic saying the resumption of the talks would depend on "political will and sincerity."
The closest that the guerrillas and the government came to an agreement was during the rule of the late President Corazon Aquino, who was swept into power in 1986 through a peaceful revolt and appeared to reciprocate the help of the communist movement in ousting the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos by releasing top communist leaders from prison.