MANILA - Moro civic leader Samira Gutoc made her way through a centuries-old Catholic church in the quiet Bicol town of Iriga, trailing a monsignor who, despite their religious differences, gave his blessing for the only woman in the opposition Otso Diretso senatorial slate.
This was not the first time Gutoc walked down church aisles and sat on pews while also wooing Muslim voters to catapult her into the Senate and end a decades-long drought in Muslim representation in the chamber.
She attended a Mass in a Caloocan cathedral alongside political titans and neophytes. She even sought endorsements from faith-based groups like El Shaddai, Jesus is Lord Movement, and Iglesia Ni Cristo.
For Gutoc, it's an example of respect among religions and that peace, despite their differences, is possible.
"Importante po sa isang verse ng Islam na (There's an important verse in Islam that says), 'To you your own and to me my own religion,'" Gutoc told reporters in Iriga.
"Naipapakita [nitong pagpasok ng isang Muslim sa simbahan] na ang kapayapaan is possible. Muslim-Christian peace is possible,” she said.
(The entry of a Muslim in a Catholic church shows that peace is possible. Muslim-Christian peace is possible.)
Raised in conservative Saudi Arabia, Gutoc earned degrees in journalism and international studies at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. She then took up law at the Arellano University.
She has been involved in interfaith movements throughout her life, helping her develop a more liberal view compared to other Moros.
For one, she prefers to have a monogamous relationship even though Muslim men are allowed to have multiple wives under Islamic law.
"As an empowered woman, I would not like to share," she told ANC's Headstart when asked if she would allow her husband to take on other wives.
"The philosophy is they have a choice. Both husband and wife have a choice," said Gutoc, who is raising a boy with her husband Hayy Tomawis.
Gutoc's contemporary stand on Islam has been criticized by some traditional Muslims who have questioned her allegiance to the conservative religion.
Memes vilifying her church visits have been circulating online, she said.
"I am just appealing to Muslim voters: Do not judge me because I entered a church," Gutoc told ABS-CBN News on the sidelines of a Labor Day event in Manila.
"We are saying na ayaw natin madiskrimina pero (that we don't want to get discriminated) we do not want to be heard in a church," she said.
NO MUSLIM VOTE
Gutoc's candidacy will not suffer due to her liberal views, Julkipli Wadi, professor at the UP Institute of Islamic Studies, told ABS-CBN News.
"Filipino Catholics do not vote according to the doctrine of the Catholic [faith] just like Muslim Filipinos do not vote based on the doctrines of Islam," he said.
"Napaka-malleable o napaka-diffused nung mga interpretations pagdating sa democracy, sa election in Islamic context so hindi nakaka-develop ng isang ideology o ng isang position o ng solid vote para doon sa isang Muslim candidate," he said.
(The interpretations of democracy and elections in the Islamic context are so malleable and very diffused that it cannot develop a single ideology or a single position or a solid vote for Muslim candidates.)
"Walang Muslim vote. It's also like the Catholic vote. It's very much divided. It's very much fragmented," he said.
(There is no Muslim vote. It's also like the Catholic vote. It's very much divided. It's very much fragmented.)
What could negatively affect Gutoc's campaign is her "unfocused" messaging, Wadi said.
Gutoc, a Moro civic leader from conflict-stricken Marawi City, has been advocating for women and children's rights and the rehabilitation of the war-torn city.
In May 2017, the former assemblywoman of the then Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao resigned as member of the Bangsamoro Transition Committee after President Rodrigo Duterte cracked rape jokes amid the worsening crisis in Marawi.
Since launching her Senate bid, she has been outspoken in her stance on the South China Sea dispute, subsidies for public transportation, the coco levy fund, and the drug war, among others.
She was the lone opposition senatorial aspirant who raised the issue of graft-tainted candidates running for public office in the bailiwick of former Sen. Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr., who was earlier detained for allegedly pocketing millions of public funds through bogus non-government organizations.
Revilla was acquitted of plunder but is still facing 16 counts of graft at the Sandiganbayan.
"Maganda 'yung masyado siyang articulate, wala siyang tinatago. Ang problema lang doon, sabog 'yung presentation niya... hindi mo mahuli ano ang position, ano ba ang point," Wadi said.
(It is good that she is very articulate, that she is not hiding anything. But the problem is, her presentation is unfocused... You could not grasp her position, what is her point.)
"Kung visibility lang ang habol mo, okay 'yun pero kailangan mo ng parang focus," he noted.
(If she is after visibility, then that is okay, but you still need to have focus.)
"Kung sanay ka na kung saan-saan pumapasok, lahat ng isyu pinapakialaman mo, [magtataka ang botante] ano ba talaga ang agenda mo," he said.
(If you get used to commenting on every issue, voters will wonder what your real agenda is.)
LP-BACKED BUT SOUGHT GMA'S SUPPORT
Gutoc's political stance appears to blur further after she admitted that she sought the support of local clans despite her stand against political dynasties.
"Even if I question political dynasties, they are powerful in their communities," she said.
"'Yung [the] mayors and governors, I made an effort to find their numbers. I texted. I said, 'Please help me, ma'am.' Almost lahat ng senators tinext ko (I texted almost all senators)," she said.
"I need them," she said.
Gutoc's "respect for titans and the big leaders" even led her to reach out to former President and now House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was detained during the term of Liberal Party stalwart and Otso Diretso backer Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III.
"I know that Gloria Arroyo has the respect of Pampanga. We do question 'yung kaniyang ilan na ginagawa but I recognize 'yung hold niya sa Pampanga. I need to reach out," she said.
(We do question some of her actions, but I recognize her hold in Pampanga.)
Gutoc did not disclose how Arroyo responded to her endorsement request but asserted that she never wavered in her political beliefs.
"They know where I am coming from.They know that I question dynasties, I do not give up on my issues. Alam naman nila 'yun (They know that.) I am consistent. I do not give up on my stand," she said.
"No pain, no gain. You have to reach out, kapalan ang mukha kasi (you cannot be timid because) I bring women, I bring the youth and they are the future," she said.
Gutoc's candidness makes her an easy target for seasoned politicians who have mastered the game, Wadi said.
"Samira is not really a politician. If you notice, to a certain degree, masyado siyang (she is too) gullible. She is so candid in expressing herself," said Wadi, who has worked with Gutoc in UP.
"Hindi siya nagtatago ng kung ano man ang dapat hindi niya sabihin kaya nate-telescope kaagad siya ng mga kung sinong tao," he said.
(She does not hold back on the things she's not supposed to say so it's easy for others to put a telescope on her and figure out who she is.)
But it is this candidness, political naivete and feisty demeanor that allowed Gutoc to break conventional stereotypes and boundaries in Muslim politics, Wadi said.
"Sa Muslim politics, ang kanilang horizon from barangay na lang until Congress... Hanggang doon na lang e," Wadi said.
(In Muslim politics, their horizon is only from the barangay to the Congress... It ends there.)
Traditional Muslim politicians never bothered to run for national posts because they were aware that there would be "difficulty in garnering votes nationwide," he said.
"The long history of animosity between Christians and Muslims in the Philippines" and the rise of jihadist extremism contributed to the Filipinos' negative impression of Muslims, he said.
It has been more than 20 years since the country last saw Muslims in the Senate: Mamintal Tamano ended his term in 1992, and Santanina Rasul left the chamber in 1995.
And both did not win because of their ethnic roots, Wadi noted.
"They were, in a sense, incidental senators... Without Cory [Aquino] and without the EDSA revolution, they would not have won," he said.
Gutoc's candidacy shattered these long-held beliefs in Muslim politics as she campaigned at the national level with neither a war chest nor the backing of a popular president.
"The likes of Samira are really achievers na kaya makipagbakbakan (who could really put up a fight)," he said.
"'Yung visibility na 'yun ni Samira, that is already enough na magsasabi na there are still dynamic Muslim leaders who are just there, waiting to be given the opportunity to serve... na hindi lahat ng nagre-register na stereotypes sa mga Muslim ay tama ang kanilang impresyon," Wadi said.
(Samira's visibility now is already enough to show that there are still dynamic Muslim leaders who are just there, waiting to be given the opportunity to serve... that not all stereotypes registered against Muslims are correct impressions.)
"Kung hindi man siya manalo, at least nabasag 'yung stereotype," he said.
(Even if she does not win, at least, she has shattered the stereotype.)