“Profound heartbreak” at cathedral destruction and abductions in southern Philippines

25th May 2017 - by Ellen Teague

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Fr. Paul Glynn greets Amina and Nathaniel of the Muslim community in the Philippines. Together they are facilitating dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao.

Church leaders in the Philippines – including the Columban Director in the country – have expressed “profound heartbreak” at a flare up of violence in the southern island of Mindanao over the past few days which has seen a cathedral torched and church people, including a priest, taken hostage by Muslim extremists.

Violence erupted in the region of Marawi on Tuesday after the Philippine army raided the hideout of a commander of the Abu Sayyaf jihadist group, which has declared allegiance to Islamic State. Abu Sayyaf has its roots in the separatist insurgency in the southern Philippines, an impoverished region where Muslims make up a majority of the population in contrast to the rest of the country, which is mainly Catholic. Maute, another militant group, was soon involved and dozens of gunmen managed to enter the city of Marawi, home to about 200,000 people. Clashes between security forces and about 100 fighters ensued, leaving at least three members of the security forces and some civilians dead. The attackers burned a Catholic church, the city jail, and two schools, as well as occupied the main streets and two bridges leading to the city.

The Director of the Columbans in the Philippines, Fr Paul Glynn, who is based in Manila, said on Wednesday, “I feel the profound heartbreak of knowing that St Mary’s Cathedral, Marawi, the hub of Marawi Prelature for so long, has been burned by ISIS-inspired terrorists”. It occurred on the eve of the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians “and the Vicar General of Marawi, Fr Teresito (Chito) Suganob, and other Catholics were abducted during the last Novena Mass yesterday afternoon”. Photos of them alive were posted on Facebook on Wednesday morning by the captors. Fr Glynn added that nearby Dansalan College of the United Church of Christ was also burned and Christian staff taken as captives; “and we are praying that the abductors will not kill any of them”.

Bishop Edwin De la Pena, who is at the head of the territorial prelature of Marawi, reported that the terrorists broke into the church, took the hostages and led them to an unknown location. Then they set fire to the cathedral and the bishop’s residence. “Everything is destroyed” he said; “we are dismayed”. He was saved because he was on a pastoral visit to a parish outside Marawi at the time. His latest report states: “The terrorists have occupied the city and people are terrified and locked in their houses. We are waiting for the army’s reaction. The mayor of Marawi has asked the military not to bomb the city where about 200,000 civilians, mostly Muslims live. We have activated our channels, the Church and Islamic leaders, and we hope to be able to negotiate soon so that our people are released safe and sound.” He has appealed to Pope Francis to ask the terrorists to release the hostages, adding that, “we ask the faithful all over the world to pray together with us for peace”.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said: “They have threatened to kill the hostages if the government forces unleashed against them are not recalled. The priest was not a combatant. He was not bearing arms. He was a threat to none. His capture and that of his companions violates every norm of civilised conflict. The husband of a woman being held hostage said he was worried about his wife, a secretary at the cathedral, because she does not have her medicines for a heart problem.” 

As thousands of Marawi residents fled the fighting, President Rodrigo Duterte returned hastily from a trip to Russia and declared martial law in the southern region for 60 days. Duterte said on Wednesday that he will consider expanding his martial law order throughout the country “in order to protect the people” if violence continues. He assured the public he will not allow abuses under military rule, even as he has repeatedly said he will deal with “terrorism” harshly. However, for many locals, the situation is reminiscent of the martial law imposed four decades ago under President Ferdinand Marcos and they are worried. Marawi City is known as the Philippines’ Islamic City, but it is home to people of diverse cultures and faiths, who generally have a shared commitment to peace and tolerance.

Fr Glynn is now concerned about the future of interfaith dialogue in Mindanao. “Those of us involved in Muslim-Christian Dialogue are tempted to feel as if all the efforts since Bishop Benny Tudtud to the present have been razed to the ground in the attack”. However, he reported seeing small signs of hope happening on Facebook and SMS texts, where Christian and Muslim friends are expressing real concern for one another, for Marawi, for the future of PEACE in Mindanao and are offering messages of solidarity and support to one another. “It is a time of deep grief” he reflected, “but at least Muslims and Christians of goodwill are grieving together”.

He also reported that the effects are not just being felt in Mindanao. A Muslim partner in Interfaith Dialogue was given hospitality in the Columban house in Manila on Wednedsay night after he found that the predominantly Muslim part of Manila, where he was planning to stay, was surrounded by military.

Fr Glynn has remembered deceased Columbans Des Hartford and Rufus Halley who both worked in Mindanao. The former was a kidnap victim in 1997 and the second was murdered in 2001 after two decades promoting dialogue between Christians and Muslims. The Columban Director said: “It is a tense time for everyone. I am asking the intercession of Charles de Foucauld and also asking Des Hartford and Rufus Halley (whom I believe are in heaven) to pray for us and for St. Patrick (who knew what it was to be kidnapped) to pray for Fr Chito Suganob and the other hostages. Please join us in praying for the hostages, and for peace in Marawi and for the Philippines at this time.”