“I can see their faces, I could remember everything.”
(Father Jeff Nadua to Rappler)
In an interview with Rappler, this was how Father Jeff Nadua, a priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral, described his reaction towards the deadly bombing incident which occurred during the Sunday Mass of January 27, 2019. Father Nadua, however, was not in the premises of the church. The mass was officiated by Father Ricky Bacolcol.
The cathedral was simultaneously blasted with two improvised explosive devices (IED), with approximately 100 victims in the vicinity. It was at the Second Reading when the first IED was detonated inside. According to MindaNews, the bomb went off from the “right side fronting the altar, at the back portion”. Police and military men stationed nearby hurried for rescue. Civilians, on the other hand, scrambled for safety. But then, another unthinkable horror happened.
A twin IED exploded outside.
“Nakita ko may mga matatanda na nandoon sa lupa na humihingi ng tulong sa amin. Gusto ko sana kunin ‘yung isang matanda noon. Eh, pumutok na. Tumilapon na rin ako doon.” [The elderly were ducked down on the ground, asking for help. I wanted to save them, get one of them, but there was a sudden explosion. I was thrown back by the impact.]
(Corporal Ruel Diaz to GMA News)
Catching them off guard, 5 soldiers died in an instant. It was believed that the second IED was placed in a utility box of a parked motorcycle just beside the cathedral. Both bombs were confirmed to be electronically-controlled through a mobile device from a remote area. The official casualty count of the Armed Forces of the Philippines – Western Mindanao Command (AFP-WESTMINCOM) reached about 21 deaths and approximately 100 injured.
Renewed by Faith: Jolo Cathedral Restored After Twin Bombing.
History of Devastation
The twin blasts left the interior of the church in shambles. The pews were scattered and pieces of shrapnel flew everywhere. The once ocean-hued windows of the cathedral became broken glass.
The Sunday explosion, however, wasn’t the first. Throughout the previous decade, the cathedral, and its surrounding area, has been the target of many extremist attacks.
In 2000, a bomb was thrown outside the church. Six years later, a blast occurred in the ground floor of a two-storey commercial building near the cathedral. Investigations later revealed that the cathedral has been the original target of the explosion, with the culprits changing their plans at the last minute.
Three explosions rocked Jolo in 2009. In July, about 6 civilians were killed when an IED exploded a hundred meters away from the church. The October explosion involved a grenade blast which left damaged properties. A New Year’s Eve blast also occurred in the same year, killing one soldier. From 2010-2013, a series of four explosions were tallied.
Considered the worst and the deadliest one yet, the 2019 twin blasts was the first to happen inside the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral.
Fr. Jeff Nadua, in his interview with News5, stressed that the attack was directed to the community and is clearly an “attack against our faith”. However, he also emphasized with Zenit that “we need to help our Christians recover from this trauma and see all this in the eyes of faith. Then we can focus our energies on rebuilding the structure which is heavily damaged by the twin bombing.”
Aid to the Church in Need continues its Appeal for Prayer to the public.
And indeed, the rebuilding and the restoration of the church happened. On February 4 and 5, 2019, Jonathan Luciano, National Director of ACN Philippines, immediately paid a solidarity visit to the relatives of the victims and to the site. Aid efforts to rehabilitate the cathedral were on board and slowly developed. Together with the help of many organizations and benefactors led by Aid to the Church in Need, the cathedral was repaired.
Six months after the deadly explosion, the renewed Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel once again held Mass on July 16, 2019. Together with retired Cardinal Orlando Quevedo and other bishops and priests, Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines Archbishop Gabrielle Caccia led the reconsecration. The day of celebration coincided with the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the church’s patroness.
The process of the Cathedral’s rebuild is only the start of its restoration. Standing with faith and love, Aid to the Church in Need continues its Appeal for Prayer to the public – that the strength and the faith of the lay and of our fellowmen be renewed and strengthened. Moreover, that the souls of those who passed away find peace and justice.
Christians around the world are being targeted because of religious beliefs. Persecution and violence have been rampant and the number of cases continue to rise. Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity, is a pontifical organization with a mission to support the faithful whenever and wherever they face injustice and persecution. The persecuted will never be forgotten, and the suffering will be aided.
As one, let us pray for the victims of the twin bombing on January 27, 2019:
(Source: AFP WESTMINCOM)
On July 31, the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan organized a Mass and a candle-lighting ceremony to express solidarity for the faithful leaders accused of inciting sedition, cyber libel, libel, and obstruction of justice. Involved in the sedition charge are the Vice President of the Philippines and 35 others, including four bishops and several priests. The bishops cited include Archbishop Socrates Villegas, President of ACN Philippines and Member of the Supervisory Board of the International Foundation and retired Bishop Teodoro Bacani, Bishop Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao and Bishop Pablo David of Caloocan.
Held at the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist in Dagupan, hundreds of people marched in prayer after Mass on Wednesday in support of Archbishop Villegas and the other three bishops innocently charged.
Jonathan Luciano, ACN National Director for the Philippines, attended the celebration of the Holy Eucharist and the candle-lighting procession together with ACN volunteers as sign of solidarity with his president.
Philippines: Hundreds march in Solidarity for Bishops amidst Sedition Complaint.
The sedition complaint was filed on 18 July by the Philippine National Police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNP-CIDG). This was in connection to the “Ang Totoong Narco List”, a video series by a man named Peter Joemel Advincula, more widely known as “Bikoy”. In the videos, he linked President Duterte, a few family members and numerous constituents to alleged involvement in illegal drug syndicates. “Bikoy” also confessed that he was a former member of a large syndicate himself. But on surrendering himself to police custody, “Bikoy” retracted his statements and stated the opposite. He claimed that everything in the videos was scripted and orchestrated by the opposing Liberal Party in connivance with a leaders of religious organizations. In a press briefing, he cited Archbishop Socrates Villegas and Bishop Pablo David as among those behind the plot to oust the President.
Expressing his concern and sadness the director of ACN said: “Around the world, cases of religious persecution continue to rise and become more rampant. Ambushes, murders, bombings – these are only a few of the violent means used by persecutors. A subtle yet more dangerous method, however, continues to exist. This comes in the form of political persecution, now directed to innocent servants of the Catholic Church”.
“As emphasized by the Pope’s prayer intentions for July, we continue to pray and hope that the government and the respectful officials involved will wield justice with truth and integrity. As the preliminary investigations against the accused commence on August 9, we call for vigilance. Let us stand in solidarity and unity in our prayers. We pray for the safety of the bishops and all those wrongfully charged, and that they find strength in these trying times,” concluded Jonathan Luciano.
The reopening of a bomb-blasted cathedral in the Philippines, six months on from terror attacks which killed 20 people, has been hailed as a testimony to the local Church’s faith and resilience despite the ongoing threat of Islamic extremism. Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need’s national director in the Philippines Jonathan Luciano described witnessing the local Christian community’s faith and courage at the re-dedication Mass of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo.
Mr Luciano said: “Security was really tight – police and soldiers locked down an entire block of the city. “Yet the cathedral was packed. The dedication was attended by hundreds. It was inspiring to see the families of the victims and the survivors of the blasts there.” The re-dedication ceremony last week was led by Archbishop Gabrielle Caccia, Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines, and Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, Archbishop Emeritus of Cotabato, another diocese in the country which also has a large Muslim population.
Philippines: Courage and faith celebrated as cathedral re-opens.
Mr Luciano said: “Cardinal Orlando described how inspiring the people of Jolo were because of their faith and resilience despite constant persecution.” He stressed the need for ongoing dialogue between Christians and Muslims. He said: “At the re-dedication, the Muslim Governor of Jolo spoke of the partnership between Christians and Muslims. With this rebuilding and this re-consecration, dialogue can restart. “At the end of the Mass, Archbishop Caccia assured people that the Church of Christ and the Christian community is with them. “They are not forgotten or neglected. This is not only manifested with financial assistance, but through the solidarity of prayer all over the world.” Militant group Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility for the bomb attack on the cathedral, which took place during Sunday Mass last January with more than 100 injured as well as 20 killed. Speaking about ACN’s work following the blast, Mr Luciano said: “ACN was the first organisation to visit two weeks after the bombing and we promised to help.”
Mr Luciano also described the programme for survivors and their families, based on the Church’s Duyog Marawi rehabilitation and interreligious outreach initiatives which were set up following the siege of Marawi by Islamist terrorists in 2017. He said: “When we visited after the bombing, I suggested to Brother Rey Barnido, executive director of Duyog Marawi, to consider helping in Jolo and now the Duyog Marawi team and the Apostolic Vicariate in Jolo are in collaboration. “What happened in Marawi is how we should respond to this crisis – rebuild the Christian community first then rebuild the actual church.” Mr Luciano warned that the threat of violence by a small number of radical Muslims would get worse unless the Church acted. He said: “This is a message to our mission partners and benefactors – I hope what happened in Jolo will really spark their interest in helping persecuted Christians in the Philippines… “We have to reinforce the relationship between Christians and Muslims. We can live harmoniously together.”
Safe and secure in God among the ruins of Islamist destruction
Father Teresito Soganub was held hostage by Islamist extremists in the Philippine city of Marawi for almost four months. However, even captivity and the certainty of his own death have not made him falter in his efforts to achieve peaceful coexistence between the religions. Two years after the happening ACN publishes Father Soganubs interview with Mark von Riedemann.
It happened on the afternoon of 23 May 2017. The parishioners had come together in Mary Help of Christians Cathedral to pray for the patronal festival the following day. The congregation suddenly became aware of shots being fired in the city. Father Teresito Soganub, vicar general of the Territorial Prelature of Marawi, recalled how unusual this was, even for Marawi, where tensions are a normal part of daily life. As part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the city has an overwhelmingly Muslim majority and operates under a modified form of Sharia law. For him and five other members of the parish, this 23 May would become a critical turning point in their lives, the day on which the ISIS-linked rebels of the Maute group conquered their city and took them and more than 100 other residents of the city hostage as leverage against government forces. Over the next five months, more than 800 people would be killed, while hundreds of thousands of displaced persons fled the city. On 17 September, 116 days later, Father Soganub was finally rescued, while the fierce fighting over the city of Marawi continued to rage until 23 October 2017.
Fr. Teresito “Chito” Soganub.
“Around 6 p.m., the police station and the prison were burning, but firefighters did not appear on the scene,” Father Teresito reported. A short time later, the flames had reached a nearby school. When the doors of the cathedral were flung open around 7 p.m., he thought at first that the army or police had arrived to bring them to safety. But the voice that rang through the megaphone, ordering them in English to cooperate if they wanted to remain unharmed, belonged to one of a group of men equipped with large calibre weapons: some wearing uniforms, others in civilian clothes. Unmasked, but armed to the teeth. The priest and the other hostages spent the next few hours in a van, travelling from one hiding place to another to avoid the retaliatory measures of the Philippine army. “They ordered us to contact the government and ask them to stop fighting the rebels,” Father Soganub described the traumatic hours. “And so, one after the other, I called them all, Bishop Edwin dela Peuz and also my predecessor as vicar general, to ask them to pass on the message of our kidnappers to President Duterte: withdraw the government troops from the city. If not, they will kill us hostages. One at a time.”
The government stood firm. However, Father Soganub was not killed. In the days that followed, the rebels changed their hiding place almost daily. And at each new house, more hostages joined the group. Finally, in June, the Maute group set up camp close to a mosque. By then, the number of hostages had grown to more than 120 persons, among them also women and children. The vast majority of the hostages, however, were young men who were forced to support the rebels over the next few weeks as they fought the army for control of the city. The hostages lived in constant fear of death: either from the weapons of the Maute group or from the hail of bombs from government forces.
On the day before their release, after weeks of fighting, the kidnappers were clearly losing ground to the government forces, Father Soganub quite distinctly recalled. “That evening, you could feel the great exhaustion and we could see from the lights that we were surrounded. Then I said to God and to myself, I have to try it now. God help me!” Then, a small miracle occurred: for 14 minutes, no shots were fired. The priest and one other hostage escaped on 17 September 2017.
Islamist extremists in the Philippines filmed themselves desecrating and setting fire to a cathedral, in an attack on a city which included the abduction of a priest and hundreds of others. Militants from Maute, an Islamist organisation which has pledged allegiance to Daesh (ISIS), desecrated sacred images at St Mary’s Cathedral, Marawi city in Mindanao island, and destroyed parts of the building. In the 96-second video, the gun-toting militants – some of them teenagers – are seen destroying images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and tearing up posters of Pope Francis.
In spite of the traumatic experience of captivity, he radiates peace and hope. “No one wants to experience something like that,” Father Teresito said. “During those months, I constantly lived with the certainty of my own death.” However, he also spoke of 116 days of constant prayer. “I was living my own lamentations. I cried out, ‘Why me, oh Lord? Why did You allow this to happen?’” However, in spite of the great sorrow, he also described a feeling of gratitude. “I expected to die and I did not understand how it was possible that I was surviving these ongoing gun battles.” Father Teresito does not consider himself a strong man, but said that he had learned that he could be strong with God. In faith. “To hear my heart screaming and still be able to say, ‘I know that You are here!’ That taught me humility and respect. Even in a situation like that.” The most senior priest in Marawi then talked about how the experience had given him a reason to learn again how to pray. And not only him and the other hostages, but the Philippine Church as a whole. “The Philippine Church always remembered us during the Prayers of Consecration. My family was approached by Protestant and even Muslim groups, who told them, ‘We are Protestants, we are Muslims, but we are praying for the safety of your brother.’” Father Soganub was particularly moved by this show of spiritual support; even before he was taken hostage, his duties included the promotion of interreligious dialogue in the prelature. “God used me to motivate others to prayer. The faith is what constitutes the Church, not the circumstances!”
A sentence that resonates, particularly in view of the fact that the cathedral of Marawi was so completely destroyed that the building could not be saved. However, even standing among the ruins of his sacred workplace, Father Soganub has not wavered, “We have to continue the dialogue between the religions side by side, as Muslims and as Christians. To sow the seeds of peace within us and work together as religions of peace for peace.”
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country; the island of Mindanao, however, on which the city of Marawi is located, has been settled by a Muslim minority. For many decades, the Muslims on Mindanao have been fighting to gain far-reaching autonomy. Marawi is the seat of a territorial prelature with about 35,000 Catholic members.
Thousands of inhabitants were forced to flee the city, most of whom still live in tents or crowded in with relatives. Already during the conflict, ACN provided emergency aid for the refugees. But now it is above all a matter of helping those traumatised by the conflict. And so ACN is supporting a project run by the diocese, helping some 200 men, women and children who were held prisoner for months and subjected to physical and spiritual torment. They include many women, and even young girls, who were raped by their captors. Help is given to Christians and Muslims alike. ACN helps with €15,000 towards this project.
Another initiative organised by the local diocese is the „Youth for Peace“ project, whereby 184 Christian and Muslim students go visiting the refugee camps, where tens of thousands of people who fled the city are still living. The students help the refugees, regardless of their religion, and so strive to witness to the fact that peaceful coexistence is still possible, even after the terrible events of 2017. For the local Bishop, Edwin de la Peña, dialogue and the rebuilding of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims are an absolute priority. ACN is giving 60,000 Euros to help fund this project.
On 27 January 2019, two bombs exploded inside the Jolo cathedral in the Sulu archipelago, situated between the islands of between Mindanao and Borneo. The attack killed 23 people and injured112 others. On January 30, there was a grenade attack on a mosque in Zamboanga, west of Mindanao Island. Father Sebastiano d’Ambra, a missionary of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME) has been working for inter-religious dialogue in the Philippines for 40 years. In an interview with the pontifical foundation ACN he talks about the situation in the country with the greatest number of Catholics in Asia.
ACN Father D’Ambra, can you tell us what happened on January 27?
Father D’Ambra: We were naturally shocked by the violence of the attack and by the fact that it targeted a sacred place. Unfortunately, this act of violence took place in a context of growing tensions in the area. In recent years, Islamic radicalism has been on the rise. And the Christian minority on the island of Jolo (1% of the total population of 120,000 inhabitants) is not the only victims; there are also Muslims who tell me: “Father, we too are threatened because we are not the same kind of Muslims as they are.”
Fr. Sebastiano D’Ambra during the homily at a mass.
ACN: Three days after the attack on the cathedral, a grenade claimed two lives at a mosque in Zamboanga, in the southern Philippines where you work. Are you afraid of interreligious violence?
Father D’Ambra: I do not think we should see a connection between the two attacks. I cannot imagine Christians wishing to avenge their dead by attacking a Muslim place of worship. On the other hand, I do believe that this is once again the work of those extremist groups whose violence is on the increase and who are sowing confusion. They want to divide Christians and Muslims and take advantage of the situation to provoke chaos throughout the country and challenge its balance; a balance that is largely based on harmonious relations between believers of different religions.
ACN: However, according to the authorities, the war against Islamic terrorism is being won. Do you share this assertion?
Father D’Ambra: No, not at all. Unfortunately, interreligious tension is present. The fact that the heads of extremist groups have been executed does not mean that the Philippine Government is winning the war, that is a mistake. I know that the Army is doing what it can to control these groups, but I do not think that’s enough. Groups such as Daesh, Maute or Abu Sayyaf share the goal of causing trouble in the country and may gain more strength in the times to come. I don’t say we have to live in fear, but we have to be realistic, and I don’t see them defeated. I believe they will continue to test the friendship we have with our Muslim neighbors.
On the morning of January 27, 2019, two bombs exploded at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, Sulu, in the Philippines.
ACN: And you, do you have the feeling that your life is in danger?
Father D’Ambra: Oh, I know that I’ve been living here for 40 forty years, so I’ve had a lot of time to be a target; I’d say many times. Once, especially when I was ambushed, and the bullet intended for me killed one of my friends. At that time, I was mediating with the Muslim rebels. The fact that a priest was among those groups for almost three years was an unusual experience. We had managed to establish a relationship of mutual respect and I suppose that the idea that one priest alone could be more effective than a thousand soldiers in making peace must have surprised those who did not want the end of the conflict. This attitude is repeated today. Some Muslims tell us that our programs for dialog between Christians and Muslims are not to the liking of extremists.
ACN: Would you like to leave a message to finish?
Father D’Ambra: Don’t be afraid! Believe me, love is stronger than hate. I thank ACN for being so close to Christians in difficulty in the world, and I ask all Christians to promote dialog in their own sphere in order to get out of the logic of conflict.
Jolo, Sulu – A small city in military lockdown, an all-out war in the adjacent municipality against violent extremists, families in mourning after burying their dead, injured patients recovering in various hospitals, and some having to be amputated. Amidst all this, a local Church of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo is doing its best to provide hope to the Christian minority while their Muslim partners rally their members to show a force of unity amidst the fear and pain, which this impoverished city in the province of Sulu is suffering. This was the scene when the ACN delegation visited the capital of the island of Jolo to express its solidarity with the victims just nine days after the fatal double bomb attack on the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on 27th January. This attack caused the death of 23 people, leaving 112 injured.
News of arrests and surrender of suspected perpetrators has failed to lift the spirit of the residents. Even with the assurance of tight security, a well-organized ‘Tribute to the Victims’ managed to draw only a fraction of the expected audience. Many opted to stay at home. A few of the families are seriously thinking of leaving Jolo for good. The bombing was the last straw, breaking their resilience in the face of years of threats, kidnapping, assassinations and harassment by what they call “the forces of evil.”
Fr Jeff Nacua Rector of the Cathedral being interviewed by ACN.
The “forces of evil” are the Muslim extremists, mostly Abu Sayyaf supporters, who have been terrorizing Christian minorities for years. Among their crimes are the killing of Bishop Benjamin (Ben) of Jesus in February 1997 in the Cathedral and two other priests, Claretian Father Roel Gallardo kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2002 and Father Rey Roda, Oblate of Mary Immaculate, in 2008. The victims of violence are not only Christians, because terrorists also kidnap Muslims with the intention of obtaining ransom to finance their actions.
Sources consulted by ACN name members of Ajang Ajang – a faction of Abu Sayyaf composed of drug traffickers and criminals, as the perpetrators of the latest attack at the headquarters of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo.
However, the messages from military, local government, traditional leaders, lay partners visited by ACN are constant: the persecution was not done by Muslims but a small minority of violent extremists.
“No bullet or bomb can destroy the harmonious relationship between Muslims and Christians in Jolo,” states Fr. Romeo Saniel, OMI. He has lived on the island for 18 years and was appointed Apostolic Administrator of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo just a few weeks ago. As pastor of a small minority (one percent of the whole population of 120,000), he is revered and admired by the people for his commitment to provide quality education and opportunities to the young generation of Tausug (Sulu’s indigenous ethnic group), as well as his courage and determination to reach out to the former fighters of the Moravian Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
On the morning of January 27, 2019, two bombs exploded at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, Sulu, in the Philippines.
“The only way for peace to be lasting is for both Muslims and Christians to stand together. We will not allow this tragedy to divide us and isolate us from the rest of the country,” remarks Datu Sakul Tan. As patriarch of a powerful political clan, he is considered the most influential man in the whole of Sulu, and he strongly believes in the relevance of quality education provided by the Catholic Church for the locals.
The needs are clearly articulated by the clergy and lay people. Even as the armed forces of the Philippines aim to eliminate the Abu Sayaf Group, everyone agrees that it doesn’t guarantee peace. Those who die will simply be replaced by the younger generation.
Fr. Saniel and Datu Sakul Tan both concur that a long-term need is to provide young people with programmes to prevent violent extremism through formal education, awareness campaigns, the creation of productive work for young people to provide them with livelihoods, and the development of sport.
On the other hand Fr. Jeff Nadua, OMI, Rector of the Cathedral, points to the need to rebuild the Christian community first and then rehabilitate the Cathedral. “We need to help our Christians recover from this trauma and see all this in the eyes of faith. Then we can focus our energies on rebuilding the structure which is heavily damaged by the twin bombing.”
On the left: Jonathan Luciano with Fr Romeo Saniel OMI – Apostolic Administrator of Jolo.
The National Director of ACN Philippines, Jonathan Luciano, paid a solidarity visit to the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo on 4 and 5 February 2019. He visited the seriously damaged Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and spoke with the Apostolic Administrator, Fr. Romeo Saniel, OMI, as well as some relatives of the victims.