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.
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.