Philippines: “The faith is what constitutes the Church, not the circumstances!”

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.
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.
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.”

 

Background:

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.

 ACN Support:

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.

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Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

La visite du Pape nous remontera le moral, plus que toute autre chose. Tous les yeux de la planète seront dirigés vers Baghdeda. Le monde saura ainsi ce qui est arrivé à cette ville : les terribles destructions et la migration forcée. Ce serait également bien si nous recevions ensuite un peu plus d’aide et de soutien. Cette visite est très importante pour nous qui sommes ici, surtout après l’énorme migration forcée de tant des nôtres. Cette visite signifie que nous ne sommes pas seuls et qu’il y a des gens qui prient pour nous. Cela nous donnera de l’espoir, nous encouragera à rester dans notre pays et à ne pas le quitter.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Si j’ai l’occasion de le rencontrer, je voudrais le remercier pour sa visite qui nous rend très heureux, et pour ses prières. Je tiens également à le remercier pour toute l’aide qu’il nous a procurée ces derniers temps. Je n’oublie pas sa grande solidarité et le geste qu’il a fait en vendant aux enchères la Lamborghini qu’on lui avait donnée pour soutenir avec l’argent récolté la reconstruction de la plaine de Ninive. Je voudrais aussi qu’il continue à prier pour nous afin que la paix arrive en Irak.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

Je voudrais lui montrer l’église historique Al-Tahira et des photos de Baghdeda, je voudrais qu’il voie comment l’État Islamique l’a détruite et comment les gens d’ici ont eu le courage de la reconstruire.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa levantará el ánimo y la moral, más que cualquier otra cosa. Todos los ojos del mundo se dirigirán a Baghdeda. Así, el mundo sabrá lo que le sucedió a esta ciudad. La terrible destrucción y la migración forzada. También sería bueno si luego recibimos más ayuda y apoyo. Esta visita es realmente importante para nosotros, los que estamos aquí, especialmente después de la enorme migración forzada de tantos de los nuestros. La visita significa que no estamos solos y hay quienes rezan por nosotros. Esto nos dará esperanza, nos animará a permanecer en nuestra tierra y no dejarla.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Si tengo la oportunidad de encontrarme con él: quiero agradecerle su visita, que nos hace muy felices, y su oración. También quiero darle las gracias por todo lo que nos ha ayudado durante el último periodo. No me olvido de su gran solidaridad y del gesto de subastar el Lamborghini para apoyar con ese dinero la reconstrucción de la llanura de Nínive. También quiero que siga orando por nosotros para que la paz llegue a Irak.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Quiero mostrarle la histórica iglesia Al-Tahira y fotos de Baghdeda, quiero que vea cómo fue destruida por ISIS y cómo la gente de aquí ha sido tan fuerte para reconstruirla nuevamente.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes wird die Stimmung und die Moral heben, mehr als alles andere. Alle Augen der Welt werden auf Baghdida gerichtet sein. Dann wird die Welt erfahren, was mit dieser Stadt passiert ist, die schreckliche Zerstörung und die erzwungene Migration. Es wäre auch gut, wenn wir anschließend mehr Hilfe und Unterstützung bekommen würden. Dieser Besuch ist wirklich wichtig für uns hier, besonders nach der großen Zwangsmigration so vieler unserer Leute. Der Besuch bedeutet, dass wir nicht allein sind, und dass es Menschen gibt, die für uns beten. Das wird uns Hoffnung geben, es wird uns ermutigen, in unserem Land zu bleiben und es nicht zu verlassen.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Wenn ich die Gelegenheit habe, ihn zu treffen: Ich möchte ihm für seinen Besuch, der uns sehr glücklich macht, und für sein Gebet danken. Ich möchte mich auch bei ihm für alles bedanken, was uns in der letzten Zeit geholfen hat. Ich werde nie seine große Solidarität vergessen sowie die Geste, den Lamborghini zu versteigern (siehe Link zur Meldung), um mit diesem Geld den Wiederaufbau der Ninive-Ebene zu unterstützen. Ich möchte auch, dass er weiterhin für uns betet, damit im Irak Frieden einkehrt.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die historische Al-Tahira-Kirche zeigen und Bilder von Baghdida, ich möchte, dass er sieht, wie alles von ISIS zerstört wurde und welcher Kraft die Menschen hier es wiederaufgebaut haben.

What does the Pope’s visit mean to you?
The papal visit will lift up our spirits and morale more than anything else. All the eyes of the world will be on Baghdeda. And in this way the world will know what happened to this city. The terrible destruction and the forcible ethnic cleansing. It will also be a good thing if afterwards we get more support and help. This visit is really important to us, to those of us who are living here, especially after the massive ethnic cleansing and expulsion of so many of us. His visit means that we are not alone and that there are people who are praying for us. This will give us fresh hope and encourage us to persevere, here on our own soil, and not leave it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
If I get the opportunity to meet him, I would like to be able to thank him for his visit, which has made us very happy, and for his prayers. I would also like to thank him for all he has done to help us in recent times. I have not forgotten his great gesture of solidarity in auctioning the Lamborghini in order to use the money to help pay for the reconstruction of our homes on the Niniveh plains. I would also like to ask him to continue praying for us and for peace to return to Iraq.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? Which places should he visit?
I would like to show him our historic Al-Tahira church, and some photos of Baghdeda. I’d like him to be able to see how it was destroyed by IS and how the people here have worked so hard recently to rebuild it once more.

Qu’est-ce que cette visite signifie pour vous ?

La visite du Pape est ce que nous désirions le plus ici. C’est une grande bénédiction. Nous avons un grand désir de le voir. Ce qui rajoute de l’importance à cette visite, c’est la situation de vulnérabilité que nous, chrétiens, subissons en Irak. Il y a plusieurs raisons à cette fragilité, toutes sont les séquelles de l’État Islamique. Toutes ces destructions ont grandement contribué à l’émigration des chrétiens. De nombreux problèmes pèsent sur nous. Mais par sa visite, le Pape nous donnera de l’espérance et de la confiance, il nous encouragera et réduira notre fardeau. Bien que la situation soit instable en Irak en ce qui concerne la sécurité, tout spécialement dans le domaine politique, on s’attend à ce qu’à l’arrivée du Pape, sa sécurité soit correctement assurée.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Je voudrais lui demander de me donner sa bénédiction, de bénir mon travail et le dévouement des prêtres d’ici, et de bénir le peuple par ses prières. Je voudrais lui demander d’aider tous ceux qui sont en danger dans ce pays, qu’ils soient chrétiens ou musulmans. Qu’il tente de mobiliser les pays du monde entier pour soutenir ce pays qui a besoin d’aide.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais qu’il visite l’église Al-Tahira, parce que c’est un symbole et un élément du patrimoine de Baghdeda. Cette église est la mère, le foyer et le patrimoine de chacun des habitants de Baghdeda. Nos ancêtres ont construit cette église, nous avons tous le sentiment d’en faire partie. Bien sûr, nous serions heureux qu’il visite de nombreux endroits, des églises, monastères et maisons traditionnelles, et qu’il rencontre également beaucoup de gens qui ont le désir de le voir.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa es lo que más hemos deseado aquí. Es una gran bendición. Sentimos un gran anhelo de verlo. Lo que agrega importancia a esta visita son las condiciones tan vulnerables que sufrimos los cristianos en Irak. Hay varios motivos para esa fragilidad, todas las secuelas que ha dejado el ISIS, esa enorme destrucción ha llevado en gran medida a la emigración de cristianos. Muchos problemas pesan sobre nosotros. Pero cuando nos visite, nos dará esperanza, confianza y aliento y reducirá esta carga. Además del hecho de que la situación de seguridad en Irak, especialmente la política, es inestable, se espera que a la llegada del Papa se garantice su seguridad de manera correcta.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Querría pedirle que me dé su bendición, que bendiga mi servicio y la entrega de los sacerdotes aquí y que bendiga al pueblo a través de sus plegarias. Le pido que ayude a todos los que están en peligro en este país, ya sean cristianos o musulmanes. Que intente movilizar a los países del mundo para que apoyen a este país que necesita ayuda.

 ¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda / Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me encantaría que visite la iglesia Al-Tahira, porque es símbolo y patrimonio de Baghdeda. Esta iglesia es madre, hogar y herencia de cada uno de los habitantes de Baghdeda. Nuestros antepasados ​​construyeron esta iglesia, todos nos sentimos parte de ella. Ciertamente, nos alegraría que visitara muchos lugares, iglesias, monasterios y casas tradicionales,  también que vea a muchas personas que anhelan verlo.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes ist das, was wir uns hier am meisten gewünscht haben. Es ist ein großer Segen. Wir spüren eine starke Sehnsucht, ihn zu sehen. Was diesen Besuch noch wichtiger macht, sind die äußerst prekären Bedingungen, unter denen wir Christen im Irak leiden. Es gibt mehrere Gründe für diese Zerbrechlichkeit. All die Folgen, die ISIS hinterlassen hat, diese enorme Zerstörung hat in großem Maße zur Auswanderung von Christen geführt. Viele Probleme lasten auf uns. Aber wenn er uns besucht, wird er uns Hoffnung, Zuversicht und Ermutigung geben und diese Last verringern. Auch wenn die Sicherheitslage im Irak, insbesondere die politische Situation, instabil ist, hoffen wir, dass bei der Ankunft des Papstes seine Sicherheit ausreichend gewährleistet ist.

 

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Ich möchte ihn bitten, mir seinen Segen zu geben, meinen Dienst und die Hingabe der Priester hier zu segnen und die Menschen durch seine Gebete zu segnen. Ich bitte ihn, all jenen zu helfen, die in diesem Land in Gefahr sind, ob sie nun Christen oder Muslime sind; und die Länder der Welt zu mobilisieren, um dieses Land, das Hilfe braucht, zu unterstützen.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida / Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte, dass er die Al-Tahira-Kirche besucht, denn sie ist ein Symbol und Erbe von Baghdida. Diese Kirche ist die Mutter, die Heimat und das Vermächtnis eines jeden einzelnen Menschen in Baghdida. Unsere Vorfahren haben diese Kirche erbaut, wir alle fühlen uns als Teil von ihr. Sicherlich würden wir uns freuen, wenn er viele Orte, Kirchen, Klöster und traditionelle Häuser besuchen würde, und auch, wenn er viele Menschen treffen würde, die sich danach sehnen, ihn zu sehen.

What does the visit mean to you?
The papal visit is the thing we have longed for most of all here. It will be a great blessing. We have a great yearning to see him. What gives added importance to this visit is the so very vulnerable situation that we are suffering as Christians in Iraq. There are many reasons for this vulnerability, including the aftermath of what IS left behind, the enormous destruction which has led in such large measure to the emigration of the Christians. There are many problems weighing on us. But when he comes to visit us, he will give us new hope and confidence and some relief from this burden. In addition there is the fact that the security situation in Iraq, and especially the political situation, is so unstable, so we are hoping that when the Pope does arrive they will guarantee his security in the way that they should.

 

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
I would like to ask him to give me his blessing, to bless my ministry and the hard work of all the priests here, and also to bless all the people through his prayers. I would ask him to help all those in danger in this country, whether they are Christians or Muslims. And that he might strive to encourage the countries of the world to support this nation, which is truly in need.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places ought he to visit?
I would love him to visit the Al-Tahira church, because it is a symbol and a rich cultural legacy of Baghdeda. This church is the mother, the home and the inheritance of every one of the inhabitants of Baghdeda. Our forefathers built this church, and we all feel we are a part of it. Of course, we would be happy for him to visit many different places – churches, monasteries and traditional homes – and also for him to be able to meet all the many people who are longing to see him.

Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

Elle a une valeur morale, et non pas économique. Cette question occupera l’opinion publique mondiale, et tout spécialement irakienne. J’ai l’impression d’y tenir une place importante.

 

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Ce sera formidable de faire sa connaissance, et je voudrais lui dire : « Nous avons besoin d’une protection internationale parce que notre communauté chrétienne a subi une migration forcée ».

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais lui montrer les églises et les maisons brûlées, afin qu’il voie les dégâts que l’État Islamique a laissés derrière lui dans cette ville. Et aussi notre Musée du patrimoine de Baghdeda pour lui présenter notre histoire et notre culture.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita tiene un valor moral, no económico. Este tema ocupará la opinión pública en el mundo y especialmente en Irak. Siento que tengo un lugar importante en él.

 

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Será genial conocerlo y querría decirle “necesitamos protección internacional, porque nuestra comunidad cristiana ha sufrido una migración forzada”.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me gustaría mostrarle las iglesias y las casas quemadas, para que vea el daño que dejó ISIS en esta ciudad. Y también nuestro Museo del patrimonio de Baghdeda para presentarle nuestro historia y cultura.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch hat einen moralischen Wert, keinen wirtschaftlichen. Er wird die öffentliche Meinung in der Welt und insbesondere im Irak beherrschen. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich einen wichtigen Anteil daran habe.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Es wird großartig sein, ihn zu treffen, und ich möchte ihm sagen: „Wir brauchen internationalen Schutz, weil unsere christliche Gemeinschaft unter der erzwungenen Auswanderung gelitten hat“.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die Kirchen und ausgebrannten Häuser zeigen, damit er den Schaden sieht, den ISIS in dieser Stadt angerichtet hat. Und auch unser Heimatmuseum in Baghdida, um ihm unsere Geschichte und Kultur näher zu bringen.

What does this visit mean to you?
This visit has a moral value rather than an economic one. This is a topic that will engage public opinion around the world and especially in Iraq. I feel as though I have an important part to play in it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?

It would be wonderful to be able to meet him, and I would like to be able to say to him, “We need international protection, because our Christian community was forcibly displaced.”

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places should he visit?
I would like to be able to show him the churches and houses that were burnt out, so that he could see the destruction left behind by IS in this city. And also our Baghdeda Heritage Museum, so that we can show him our history and culture.