Philippines: Deadly attack in Marawi university sparks commotion and fear among local Catholic minority

A bomb detonated on Sunday, 3 December, during a Catholic mass in the Public University of Mindanao, in the city of Marawi, in southern Philippines. Local sources say that the explosion took the lives of at least four faithful, leaving over 40 injured. The attack was claimed from Islamabad by a group affiliated with the Islamic State.

Rev. Martin s. Jumoad, Bishop of Isabela of basilan with Fr. Sebastian d'ambra, Italian prime missionary in front of memorial for peace Isabela of Basilan
Rev. Martin s. Jumoad, Bishop of Isabela of basilan with Fr. Sebastian d’ambra, Italian prime missionary in front of memorial for peace Isabela of Basilan

A terrorist attack struck a mass marking the first Sunday of Advent, a period when Christians prepare to celebrate Christmas, and during which the first of four Advent candles is lit. In a statement released after the attack, the Philippines bishops claim that the timing of the attack, which has left the community devastated, was deliberate.

In expressing their concern, the bishops call for prayers for the dead and wounded. “We pray for the eternal repose of those who have died, and for the healing of those who have been injured. We unite ourselves spiritually with their families and draw strength and consolation from our faith in Christ who will ‘restore all things to himself, making peace by the blood of his cross…’ (Col. 1:20)”.

During a telephone conversation with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Fr Sebastiano D’Ambra, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) expressed his dismay with this terrorist attack, and shared some details that illustrate the potency of the explosion, stressing the fact that the university, which he has visited, often hosts hundreds of Catholics in its Sunday services. “It has a chaplaincy with a space for daily mass. On Sundays they celebrate in the gymnasium, because the chapel isn’t big enough. I don’t know how many people were there today, but they often have between 300 and 400 Catholics on Sundays. This being the first Sunday of Advent, I am sure many faithful were present.”

A #RedWednesday for the Philippines

“I see this as a very tragic event, because just today we were beginning the Marawi Week of Peace in the Diocese of Marawi. What was meant to be a week full of positive peace-building moments has become a time of terror”, the missionary stated sadly.

Authorities have not provided any concrete information on the reasons for the attack, although speculation runs from the war in Gaza to reprisals for Government activity against local extremist groups. “We have to wait for more information about the perpetrators of the attack, and their motives, but there is no doubt that Christians were the target”, the Italian missionary told ACN.

Fr. Sebastiano D'Ambra during the homily at a mass.
Fr. Sebastiano D’Ambra during the homily at a mass.

Regarding the consequences of the attack, Fr D’Ambra warns of the impact of the explosion on the wider Christian population: “What has happened in Marawi is alarming. The university draws Christians from different parts of Mindanao to the city. There is a danger that the attack will provoke an exodus of the Catholic minority. Many families have already urged their children to return to their homelands because of the fear that the Christians are feeling”, he added.

“Just a few days ago we marked #RedWednesday, an ACN initiative which is celebrated across the Philippines and is supported by the Bishops’ Conference as a day to remember Christians from all over the world who are persecuted because of their faith. We marked this day in the school I work in, and it was very emotional. Who could have guessed that just a few days later we would be experiencing this violence first-hand?”, said Fr D’Ambra.

The bishops’ statement also recalls the recent celebration of #RedWednesday, saying: “the casualties in this morning’s bombing are now counted” among the many who “for sheer love of their faith, have suffered from violence and persecution around the world”.

Pope Francis also remarked on the attack during the Angelus prayer, in Rome, saying: “I wish to assure my prayer for the victims of the attack that occurred this morning in the Philippines, where a bomb exploded during Mass. I am close to the families and the people of Mindanao, who have already suffered so much.”

Increase in violence and persecution

Although around 80% of Filipinos are Catholic, the Island of Mindanao, where the city of Marawi is located, is overwhelmingly Muslim – around 98% Muslims and 2% Christians. Marawi is home to a territorial prelature that caters to around 35 thousand Catholics.

The Christian minority in Mindanao has suffered terrible Islamist attacks in past years. Several radical armed groups operate in the region, almost all of which are connected to the Islamic State of East Asia, such as Abu Sayyaf or Dawlah Islamiyah, which has been linked to the recent bombing.

In 2017 Marawi suffered a siege which lasted months and caused many deaths. At the time Fr D’Ambra explained that over the past few years several international Islamist groups had begun operating in the Philippines with the goal of attracting new generations. Both the ideology they espouse and the money they offer have proven to be useful for enlisting new fighters.

With 40 years of experience in the Philippines, Fr D’Ambra is the founder of the Silsilah movement, which has been promoting interreligious dialogue since 1984. ACN has been a partner of this project since the beginning, with the aim of promoting dialogue and coexistence between Catholics and Muslims. “Episodes such as this one in Marawi only worsen an already complicated situation, and make it more difficult to promote interreligious dialogue. These are new challenges, and they make our work, which is coming up to 40 years, as important now as it was in the beginning”, Fr D’Ambra recognises.

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