MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - Father Teresito Soganub doesn’t look like a Catholic priest and, from the outside, his cathedral doesn’t look like a church.
In his parish, tucked away in Marawi, the only Islamic city in the Philippines, it’s easier that way.
“To avoid arguments and to avoid further misunderstandings we just plant the cross deep in our hearts,” said the 47-year-old priest, who doesn’t wear a crucifix or a clerical collar and sports a beard out of respect for his Muslim neighbors.
The Philippines, a largely Catholic country in Southeast Asia, proudly advertises its dominant faith even in the southern region of Mindanao, where an estimated 20 percent of the population is Muslim.
But Marawi City is an exception.
This ramshackle city of wooden shacks and shabbily elegant mosques is around 385 miles south of Manila, but it’s a world apart for many Filipinos.
Marawi is the spiritual centre for the Maranao, the most devout of three major Muslim groups in the Philippines.
A quick glance at the streets of Marawi make it clear that this is a city of the crescent rather than the cross. “Gift of Allah” rather than “Gift of Jesus” is the sign blazoned across the city’s pedicabs, the local bank is Islamic and women are veiled.
Unique to Marawi, Muslim moral rules are part of the city code.
Alcohol and gambling are banned, Muslim women must cover their heads, the sale of pork is forbidden and karaoke clubs, the beating heart of village life across the archipelago including other Muslim regions, are a no-no.
“At home with the family we can do karaoke but we do not allow it in public,” said Camid Gandamra, one of the province’s numerous sultans and also secretary of transport and communications in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a homeland for Muslims established in 1989.
“It might encourage people to go to nightclubs and other places of amusement that are prohibited for our tribe,” said the father of 12, over tea and muffins in his smart city residence.
Marawi, which overlooks the Philippines’ second-largest lake, is not threatened by local extremist Muslim group the Abu Sayyaf and has avoided the bomb attacks that have scarred other parts of the south from their campaign.
But many Filipinos avoid the city, fearing the unfamiliar and the worst.
“It’s a Muslim country down there. You could be ambushed and kidnapped,” said Ray Lomoago, a chef in nearby Iligan city.
Gandamra said Marawi’s sinister reputation was undeserved and any kidnapping was due to personal retaliation and feuding rather than a local kidnap-for-ransom industry.
The city was the scene of fighting in a Muslim-Christian struggle in the 1970s and Catholic priests have been targeted by kidnappers, including one Irish cleric who was shot dead by would-be captors in 2001.
Relations, however, are smoother today.
Father Soganub says local Muslim leaders include him in community discussions and he is constantly having to dissuade locals from trying to find him a wife.
But his modest Santa Maria Auxiliadora Cathedral, with its corrugated iron roof, has no cross outside to show that it is a Christian church.
“People here don’t want a large symbol. The residents don’t want that,” he said.
Catholics account for around 1 percent of Marawi’s 160,000 population and Soganub is lucky if he gets 8 weddings a year.
Most celebrants prefer to get married elsewhere so they can feast on lechon, or roast pig, a staple at celebrations in Catholic parts of the country.
Islam was practiced in the Philippines before the Spanish converted many to Catholicism in the 1500s.
Mindanao remained largely Muslim and its religious balance was tipped in favor of Christianity only due to resettlement programs started during the U.S. colonial period in the early part of the twentieth century and accelerated after World War 2.
Muslims in the south, known as Moros, do not consider themselves Filipino. The Maranos are no exception. They are also deeply suspicious of U.S. activities in the south.
Hundreds of U.S. special forces are advising the Philippine military on operations against Islamic militants in the southwestern tip of the archipelago and signs reading “U.S. troops out” are dotted around Marawi.
Proud of their devout city, Marano do not think others should adopt a similar code. In many ways, their strong adherence to Islam is an important differentiator from the two other major Muslim groups; the Maguindanao and the Tausug.
Marano brassware, ceremonial bolos or swords and the local habit of hanging streamers banners around the city to celebrate family members’ educational achievements and haj pilgrimages are other distinguishing items.
But for children, the biggest difference of all are the holidays.
In addition to Christian festivals such as Easter and Christmas, schools in the city get the entire month of Ramadan off.
“That was done to assert our identity, to show that we are different,” said Paladan Badron, the city’s acting administrator. “It’s nice to be a pupil here.”
Reporting by Carmel Crimmins; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Megan Goldin