“The general population is not sympathetic to ISIS elements”
Interview by Jonathan Luciano, ACN Philippines National Director, with Bishop Prelate of Marawi Edwin dela Peña (MSP) about the situation in the Prelature of Marawi in the Southern Philippines, where the terrorist Maute group attacked the city, killing Christians and burning down buildings including the Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians. As of press time, 104 people have been killed and more than 12,500 families have been displaced. Fr. Chito Suganob, the Vicar General was abducted together with other Cathedral Staff. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) confirmed the authenticity of the video circulating on Facebook surfaced Fr. Chito Suganob on Tuesday (30 May).
How is the present situation now in the Prelature of Marawi?
We are still right in the midst of it, I don’t know how to describe it, our people are not there anymore, they have been evacuated, those who have been left behind, I don’t know what their situation is because there is a continuing operation to clean up the city, to wash out the terrorists and there is aerial bombing, so forth and so on. I don’t know how they are surviving it.
Was the Cathedral totally destroyed?
Yes, I was told that the cathedral and the bishop’s house have been totally destroyed, first by the torching, it was put on fire, and then also by the bombing because we are right there at the center of the fighting. I’m not so sure how soon we will be able to recover but it is going to be very difficult for all of us, not only for Christians but for the Muslims as well.
How was the Muslim-Christian relations in Marawi before the incident happened?
Marawi is about 95% Muslims. We are a very tiny minority, we are a very small church in Marawi and the greater bulk of the Catholic population in the city is in the university where we have students coming from other provinces in Mindanao.
It was beautiful. We were engaged in interfaith dialogue and we have many partners. And in fact, Fr. Cito was in the thick of it because he was, his primary focus really is to connect, to link up with all the Muslim NGOs who have partnered with us in community development and educating for interfaith dialogue. It was beautiful until this extremism emerged, the fighting, the presence of these extremist elements from the Middle East, and the radicalization of young people, unwittingly, unknowingly, some of our people were not oriented towards the current situation in the Middle East and the radicalization that is coming into the country today, especially here in Mindanao. And so, the situation got a little radicalized since then. But generally, our relations with our partners has always been very positive and in fact, we learned from them that they are also against this influx of ISIS elements coming into Marawi because they knew exactly what consequences would be to the culture of people, to the way of life. The people of Marawi have always been very peaceful.
Is it correct to say that the general population is not sympathetic to ISIS elements.
Yes, yes, yes, that is correct. In fact, what is happening today, especially that we are on Ramadan, it is a very holy month for them, they are not able to celebrate it the way they would have wanted to. They feel a certain kind of anger against these terrorist groups coming in to disturb this very holy remembrance of Ramadan. So if these extremist groups wanted to get the support of the people, they are not getting it now.
Based on your knowledge of how ISIS operates in the Middle East, do you see any difference with what is happening in Syria and Iraq versus what is happening now in Marawi?
It is something like that. It may not be another Syria or Iraq but the way the city looks now after the bombing and all, it doesn’t look like Marawi anymore. The remnants of the old city, everything that we see on the news feed about Marawi is all ruined, there is destruction everywhere. That is the image we have in mind of Syria and Iraq.
Who are the Maute group who led this terrorist attacks in Marawi?
Maute is Maranaw and from my own discussion with some religious figures here in Marawi, this group who constituted (inaudible) previous heir of Marawi, now that he’s no longer the mayor, now that the drug peddlers has been controlled, these people were used to an easy life before with all the money that is pouring in to drug trade, they’re used to a life of comfort. Now that they are out in power, the mayor can no longer support them, he has no resources to support them so they are left on their own. That was probably one factor that led them towards radicalization because they have to fend themselves. We were also told and informed that money was coming from the outside, some people are also part of some training, some foreign elements are training them in the lairs of Lanao Sur. These are what probably have driven them from this kind of life.
The government has kept denying that there is ISIS presence in the Philippines. What can you say about that?
I’m not so sure about it. They can deny it for as long as they can but some people, you know what, I’m not the right person to speak about it, I’m just echoing what I know that some of them have even been trained outside, the Maute brothers studied in the Middle East. They come from very rich families so they have the means to send their children to school in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. I heard about it.
Is there a relationship between Maute and the infamous terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf?
I think so, the fact that Hapilon is in Lanao, in fact they were about to serve him the warrant of arrest before all this happened. That was the trigger. Hapilon is Abu Sayyaf, so they have a tactical alliance with the Maute brothers in Lanao Sur aside from the fact that both are also sympathetic to ISIS, so they have this tactical alliance and they probably are joining forces.
Do you have any updates about Fr. Chito and other kidnapped Christians?
I am aware of the video of Fr. Chito since yesterday. He is alive! I am happy about that but sad also about the reactions of the DDS netizens (DDS stands for Digong Duterte Supporters- the supporters of the president), who castigated him for his message without any regard for his present situation as a hostage deprived of his freedom. We have lost our sense of humanity! How sad! I grieve for this country and I am so sorry for the situation of Fr. Chito and company.
We did not have any contacts with the military until a few days ago when I was able to link up with the chief of a commanding officer of the Marines division who are now doing up the clean-up and the mopping up operations in Marawi right now, and he promised to do their best to locate Fr. Chito and company. They are about 12-15 people. Some of them were teachers from nearby Dansalan college and they just happened to meet together in one place where they are being held but many of them were at the Cathedral at the time because they were preparing for the feast of Mary, help of Christians the following day. So we had many people in the house and in the Church doing all sorts of things.
Do you consider this incident as an escalation of the various anti-Christian events that have happened in Mindanao?
Yes, I suppose it is.
Do you know of any personal stories of solidarity between Muslims and Christians these past few days?
Yes, personal knowledge about the family of my driver who were holed up in one of the rice mills in Marawi city and accompanying them was their barangay chairman who is Maranaw and he was the one who organized the group and gave them orientation as to how they should respond if the Maute group intercepts them along the way. So they went out of the house together towards the bridge out where the buses were waiting to take them out of Marawi. I would consider them a hero for leading these group of Christians and Muslims together, trying to flee from the danger that was awaiting them.
But there were some people in the group who were trying to catch up, and they were the same group of crowd traveling, trying to cross the bridge, they were accosted by this Maute group, this terrorist group. They were asked if they were Christians. Unfortunately, they responded yes because they were not there when the orientation was given. The other fellow, the husband of one of our adopted families living in the cathedral compound in Marawi, he was pulled out of the group because he was just wearing sleeveless clothing and he had a cross tattoo on his shoulder. So he was identified as a Christian, he was pulled out. Then, lately we heard reports of some men getting killed and dropped into a ravine. And so, they say they were the ones who were trying to catch up with them, trying to join the convoy of evacuees. You can read in the papers too about so many stories of Muslims trying to protect Christians.
How would this incident affect Christian-Muslim relations in Marawi?
We cannot help it that some people who now familiar with what we have been doing here in Marawi and the kind of relationship that we have built up through the years, some of the natural biases that Christians have against Muslims will be stirred up again. This is a very kind of frustrating work that we are doing. Interfaith dialogue is a very fragile process and these incidents can destroy the foundation that we have made. Some people are fueling these anti-Muslim kind of sentiments. We don’t like that to happen because it is so sad, we’ve made a very good headway in the improvement of relationship between Muslims and Christians in Marawi. In fact, comparing our relationship with other places, I can safely say that ours is the best. The Muslim-Christian relations among the Maranaos is the best compared to others considering that we have done so much in 41 years, the Prelature is almost 41 years. We also have schools, and the schools have been there even before the prelature was established. And these school of ours have always been dear to our Muslim brothers and Christians because many of their parents studied there and their professionals in the town have gone to our schools and they would always send their children to our schools because they have developed that kind of patronage and loyalty to our schools.
What is your message to the ACN community worldwide?
It is very unfortunate that our small prelature which is the smallest and poorest local church in the Philippines had to undergo this very difficult crisis. Our Cathedral has been destroyed, the parish, the Bishop’s house has been destroyed and we have to start from scratch trying to build, to re-establish Christian presence in this predominantly Muslim area of Central Mindanao. We have to continue with our mission of offering the hand of reconciliation and friendship with our Muslim brothers and sisters because this was the legacy of Pope Paul VI when he re-established the prelature of Marawi, at the height of the crisis in the early 70s, and the Pope said, quoting Bishop Tutu, “We Christians should be the first to offer the hand of reconciliation and brotherhood to our Muslim brothers and sisters. That is the way to establish peace that had been broken because of the war.” I think that the same holds true for our present situation today. We cannot turn our backs away from what we have started, what the Prelature had begun in the middle 70s, to continue the work of dialogue, continue working with our Muslim brothers and sisters, to establish, to rebuild the broken relationships, the broken dreams and hopes of so many people to live in peace. We just want to live in peace and we would like to ask you to help us to rebuild that peace to the kind of work that we do: working with and being in dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Which are your urgent needs at the moment?
We are not so much concerned about our needs in the moment, our focus is more trying to do what we can to respond to the humanitarian crisis that has turned up in Iligan right now, we have so many evacuees from Marawi and they need all the support that we can get that is why some of our dioceses and even Caritas Filipinas in Manila and Archdiocese of Manila through Cardinal Chito Tagle and all the other dioceses in the Philippines have signified, have asked us how they can be of help, where they can send all their donations. So we have tied up with the Diocese of Iligan to put up these command centers at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in Iligan City to receive donations, to organize volunteers to do the repacking and the distribution. We are also working with our Muslim brothers and sisters who are with us in dialogue, it is one great opportunity for us to show our solidarity and try to respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters especially in the evacuation centers. So this is what we are doing and if there is anything you can do to help us, to bring the attention of the world to what is happening in Marawi right now, or in the relief operations, we would welcome it very much.