Philippines, Island of Mindanao, Islamic city of Marawi. Last year, the 400.000 people Muslim capital of the country was overtaken by djihadists claiming to be the local branch of ISIS. They attacked the cathedral on May 23rd and kidnapped the parish priest who finally escaped 4 months later. The city was then under siege for nearly 5 months and was literally destroyed. 3 months after the end of the battle, the access to the city center is still forbidden.
On this Friday January 11th, 2018, a small delegation including 2 national ACN directors (Philippines and France) was able to enter the perimeter originally named Ground zero and now called MAA: most affected area. The delegation was composed of civilians, the first to enter the area since the war with a heavy military escort. Among the delegation was the bishop of Marawi, Edwin de la Peña, for whom it was the first visit to his cathedral since May 22, 2017.
As he approached the church, he later confessed that he felt his heart break. The first thing he did was to kneel in silence in front of the devastated altar. Everything has been damaged including the statues of our Lord and of the Virgin Mary. Bullet impacts, burnt liturgical furniture, destruction everywhere. The bishop’s residence, just in front of the cathedral and where he had been living for the past 16 years, is also totally destroyed.
We could obviously feel his total annihilation but later, he would tell us that his priority, rather to rebuild the cathedral, was to have the Christian population of the city come back. No need of cathedral if that wasn’t achieved but after the trauma of the war, that goal seemed an incredible challenge.
One of his major reasons for not losing hope and something that really touched us was to see that among the volunteers working with the Catholic Church to help the people and rebuild trust, there were many young Muslim people. Actually, most of the volunteers were Muslims and they were really engaging with the different programs proposed by the Church.
If this whole nightmare was at least able to allow a new generation of peace building volunteers to appear, maybe the possibility of a future remained.
The bishop, the faithful (Catholics being a tiny minority, more or less 3%) and even the volunteers were so grateful to ACN for its support and for having simply come to visit them. We told them that they could count on our support but we also confessed that they had a great responsibility: if they were able to reconciliate, they would appear as models for other regions of the world with the same tensions.
It was a deeply moving journey, passing through some sort of desperate view of hell to the promise of a resurrection, at least a prayer intention that we will keep.