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.

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 .

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.

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 .

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.

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.

AN urgent appeal for prayers for the victims of yesterday’s terrorist attack on a cathedral in the Philippines has been made by the leader of the local Catholic community.

Two bombs exploded yesterday (27th January) during Sunday Mass in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, southern Philippines, killing 20 people and wounding dozens more, according to local police.

In a message to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Father Romeo Saniel, Apostolic Administrator of Jolo, said:  “Please pray for the victims of Mount Carmel Cathedral bombing in Jolo. “No words can describe the sorrow and pain that we feel these days. May they be given justice in God’s time. “I know that the friends of the victims – both Muslims and Christians – are mourning and in deep sorrow today.

“Pray also pray for the families of our young soldiers who died while securing the cathedral.” Fr Saniel added: “Most of those who died were our regular Sunday 8am Mass-goers.”

A Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ statement on the bombings also expressed condolences to the families of the civilians and soldiers who were killed.

According to local Church sources, the first blast went off at 08.45am local time (00.45 GMT), while Mass was being said. As soldiers responded to the incident, a second explosion took place in the car park, where Mass-goers had gathered following the first detonation. Initial reports suggest the second bomb was hidden inside the tool box of a motorcycle. Following an examination of the bomb sites earlier today (Monday, 28th January), police chief Oscar Albayalde said that the devices could have been set off by a mobile phone.

Deash (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, but in a radio interview, Colonel Gerry Besana of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, said that CCTV footage suggested a break-away faction of Islamist extremist group Abu Sayyaf could be responsible. Abu Sayyaf has pledged allegiance to Daesh. Since 2000, there have been at least 10 attacks on or near the cathedral, many of which Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility for.The cathedral attack came within a week of a referendum in which the Muslim-majority region of Mindanao voted for greater autonomy.

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.