Update on violent outbreak in the Philippines

1st June 2017 - by Stephen Awre

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Columban Fr. Vincent Busch writes from southern Mindanao on the continuing violence between the government and Maute terrorists and shares his fears for the Church and Subanen people he knows who are being held as hostages.

As the crow flies Marawi City is only 30 miles away from my residence in Ozamiz City but to get there I would need to ferry across a bay and then travel a circuitous route along a coastline road to Iligan City and then inland up a winding road to the highlands where Marawi City lies next to lake Lanao. Lake Lanao is the source of hydroelectric power for much of Mindanao. Marawi is populated primarily by Maranao Muslims.

Tuesday May 23, 2017

The violence began early afternoon when a joint operation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police was launched in Marawi City to capture terrorist leader Isnilon Hapilon, who is believed to be an Islamic State (ISIS) leader in Southeast Asia. 

As the Philippine forces were closing in on the place where they thought Hapilon was hiding a firefight between government troops and the “Maute” group erupted. The “Maute” is a terrorist gang of ISIS sympathizers which has a distorted mentality about Islam that is similar to the distorted mentality the Ku Klux Klan has about Christianity.

While Fr. Teresito (Chito) Suganob of St Mary’s Cathedral and a few parishioners were celebrating Mass on the eve of their fiesta day, Maute fighters occupied the parish buildings and kidnapped them. Later that night the cathedral was burnt to the ground. Meanwhile, nearby buildings belonging to Dansalan College, run by the United Church of Christ, were burnt and some of its teachers were abducted.

Wednesday May 24, 2017

The Subanen Crafters, whom I work with, have family members working in Marawi. They kept in mobile phone contact with their family members as the fighting continued. About 30 Subanens, cousins and siblings of those I know, were in hiding in a building owned by a former mayor of Marawi.

Friday May 26, 2017

The Catholic Bishops of Mindanao, in a joint statement, said: “We condemn the terrorist acts that have caused the loss of many innocent lives, the burning of homes, public buildings, including a Protestant school dormitory and a Catholic Cathedral. We condemn the unconscionable kidnapping of teachers and church personnel. We pray for the safety of all the kidnapped, of Fr. Teresito Suganob and his companions. We appeal to the hostage takers to release all of them unharmed.”

Today, we got news that members of the Maute gang discovered the hiding place of the Subanens and destroyed the sim cards from their cell phones. Jay Gawason – the cousin of Subanen crafters Mercy and Vangie – managed to hide his cell phone from the Maute fighters. Later, while not being watched, Marie Gawason – Jay’s cousin – used the hidden phone to call her cousin Vangie here with us in Ozamiz. In a hushed voice, she told us they had no food or water and were very afraid.  The fighting could be heard all around them. That was our last contact with the now captured Subanens. 

Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte addressed the Philippine Army troops on the outskirts of Iligan City, one hour from Marawi City. He made a sick joke about “rape” as he urged soldiers to use the powers of martial law to take control of Marawi, saying he will face the consequences if any soldiers are accused of abuses. He said: “I will go to jail for you… I will own up to it.”

Saturday May 27, 2017

Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella defends Duterte from local and international criticism of his reference to rape, saying he only wanted to emphasise his full support for government troops tasked with fighting the terrorists.  Critics responded by saying that “rape” is never something to joke about, and, in the context of the present conflict, such a comment becomes a recruiting tool for ISIS groups like Maute.

Sunday May 28, 2017

The fighting continues in Marawi as refugees streamed out of the area. Thousands are fleeing the city leaving their homes and belongings behind. Still no more word about the captured Subanens.

Monday May 29, 2017

Fr. Paul Glynn receives a text message from Bishop Edwin de la Pena, the Catholic Bishop of Marawi. Bishop de la Pena is working diligently with government officials and others to free Fr Chito and the other captives.

Bishop de la Pena has also been in contact by cell phone with people still trapped in their homes in Marawi. The Bishop told Paul: “The City of Marawi is ruined. Buildings were destroyed by the bombings and airstrikes. And the air smells awful presumably from burnt objects and decomposing human bodies. Cadavers are sighted in many parts of the city. This day alone, the provincial government rescue team recovered 14 unknown and decomposing bodies. As to the condition and location of the hostages, nobody seemed to know anything. The silence is total regarding the hostages!”

Columban Father Enrique Escobar reported from Cagayan de Oro City (a large city 60 miles from Marawi) that thousands of Muslim refugees have sought refuge in his barrio (neighbourhood), called Barra. Fr Enrique is working with the people of his parish and the interfaith group of the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro to help resettle the refugees.

Tuesday May 30, 2017

I received this disturbing email from Fr. Paul Glynn: “A video was posted on Facebook today of Fr Chito Suganob pleading with President Duterte to pull back the troops from pursuing their Maute captors. It is heartbreaking to see him being used as a mouthpiece of the terrorists. Pray for him and the other 240 captives (according to Chito in the video). Pray that they will be released and not killed.” 

I watched this disturbing video together with the Subanens crafters. What concerned us most was when Father Chito mentioned that he was one of 240 other hostages, including workers, teachers, church personnel, and Subanens. We now believe that the family members of the Subanen crafters are being held captive with Fr. Chito.

Wednesday May 31, 2017

The fighting continues and still there is no word about the hostages. Meanwhile we are carrying on as best we can. It is sadly appropriate that the Christmas cards we are crafting depict Mary and Joseph quickly packing their belongings so that they can escape the danger of Herod’s soldiers. The people of Marawi are also in danger and are fleeing the City. It is a poignant scene here as the Subanens craft cards that show the frightened parents of Jesus fleeing armed men while they listen to radio reports about Marawi and worry about their family members held hostage there.

Fr. Vincent (Vinnie) Busch has been working with the Subanen people for many years and supported them in establishing Subanen Crafts, which makes Christmas cards, jewellary and other items to provide a sustainable income.  In Britain, we are hoping to once again have Subanen Christmas Cards on sale from September 2017.  Call Marie Fitzpatrick on 01564 772 096 to place an order.