Reinhard Backes travelled to the Philippine city of Marawi for the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need. The Christian minority in the city was suppressed for months by Islamists. An interview about relations between Christians and Muslims in the region and how the aftermath of the conflict is being dealt with.
What has been happening in Marawi over the last few months?
The city is a centre of the Muslim faith on Mindanao, even though the island itself, the second largest of the Philippines, has a Christian majority. And of all places, this was the place that was targeted by Islamist extremists. It all started on 23 May 2017. The Philippine military had planned an operation to arrest the leader of the so-called “Islamic State” of the region. However, extremists beat them to it and occupied the historic city centre of Marawi until well into October. In the end, the conflict was resolved through violence. The army massively bombed the city centre. According to official sources, 920 extremists, 165 soldiers and 45 civilians were killed.
Was this more of a spontaneous attack or had the occupation been planned for a long time?
Apparently, the attackers were well prepared and well informed about the planned military operation. They may even have been warned by informants within the military. However, like so many other things, this is a matter of speculation because detailed information about what happened during the attack on Marawi is still not available. When I visited the city in early March, it was explained to me that the majority of extremists were Indonesians. Mindanao is easy to reach from Indonesia by ocean. It apparently was and still is difficult for the military to control the ocean route. Observers believe that the army was not prepared for such a threat.
Were the Islamists helped by members of the general population?
It has to be assumed that they did receive some sort of “backing” from the general population. After all, the extremists apparently used a tunnel system to move about underground. And something like that certainly does not happen overnight.
According to media reports, Christians were taken hostage, among them a priest.
Many hostages were taken, the majority of which were Christians. Apparently, the Catholic Saint Mary’s Cathedral was one of the first sites targeted by the extremists in the city. It is to be assumed that they wanted to take the bishop of Marawi, Edwin de la Peña, hostage, but he was not in the city centre at the time. And so they took the vicar general, Teresito Suganob, and other believers instead. However, the Islamists also took hostages from among the Muslims whom they accused of collaborating with the Christians.
Was Saint Mary’s Cathedral defiled or desecrated in any way?
Yes. The church is pretty much completely destroyed, including all sculptures, statues of Our Lady and crucifixes. I saw a statue of the Virgin Mary that had been beheaded. They probably burned the head. All that was left was the clothed corpus. From an architectural standpoint, the cathedral is a rather simple, hall-like structure. Marawi is majority Muslim and so it was not acceptable to build an overly conspicuous Christian church. The Catholic community there has only a few thousand members, who are scattered for the time being.
What was the relationship between Christians and Muslims before the Islamists invaded?
Just as in other countries, such as Pakistan, where Christians are only a small minority among Muslims, they try to establish a good relationship with their Muslim neighbours. At least this is what I have noticed on the Catholic side. This is also the reason why Christians usually maintain close ties to the Muslim authorities, and Marawi was no exception. The same is probably also true for the Muslims, because the vast majority just wanted to coexist peacefully with their neighbours. This is why relations were mostly friendly. Now, however, a certain degree of distrust pervades.
How is the bishop of Marawi, Edwin de la Peña, dealing with the situation?
Bishop de la Peña is very keen on reconciling the two sides. That is why he has not made rebuilding the cathedral a top priority. He is focusing on strengthening the feeling of community and rebuilding relations between peoples and religions.
Have specific projects been developed to work towards these goals?
The diocese has started a number of initiatives. One of these is a rehabilitation centre, which offers assistance to over 200 people who were held captive for months and suffered physical and emotional torment. The centre is open to both Christians and Muslims. The counselling services include group and individual therapy sessions for women, girls and teenagers who have been raped, for men who have fallen victim to violence or were beaten, and for children who need to be reintegrated into daily life following the terrible experiences they have suffered.
And you mentioned another project…
It is called “Youth for Peace” and is also an initiative of the local Church. As part of this project, 184 predominately Muslim students attending Mindanao State University visit refugee camps. Thousands upon thousands of people fled the city centre during the conflict and are now living in camps that were set up outside of the city. The objective of “Youth for Peace” is to help these refugees, showing them “we are here for you, we want to recreate that, which we once had, namely, a peaceful coexistence”: this is what the students want to achieve. In doing so, it does not matter whether the refugees are Christian or Muslim.
How is Aid to the Church in Need supporting these projects?
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) first provided emergency relief for the refugees during the conflict. Now we would like to help make sure that the rehabilitation centre can continue its work. We are also supporting the “Duyog Marawi” Peace Corridor Programme of the local Church. “Youth for Peace” is one of the projects started by this programme. So far, two vehicles have been donated, a van and a transporter. Further aid is planned. We are also talking about helping to set up shelters for the refugees who have been living for months in tents. With tropical temperatures far exceeding 30 degrees, conditions inside the tents are almost impossible to endure. And then it also starts raining, at times heavily. Tents are therefore not a long-term solution. Instead, small, temporary houses are being discussed, which should meet the needs of the refugees for the time being. ACN may get involved in this.
Is there a realistic chance that the city can be rebuilt in the next few years?
Reconstruction will certainly take many years. I have never seen a city centre destroyed to the degree that Marawi has been. And not much has happened since the fighting ended in October last year. The military says that all the unexploded bombs, ammunition and booby traps left behind by the extremists first need to be removed.
What are your thoughts now after your trip?
On the one hand, it is quite dramatic to see how Islamists have used and destroyed an entire city, an established culture, and to what extremes ideological delusion can lead. On the other hand, I was very surprised by the people of Marawi. Their situation may be catastrophic, but they have hope, they are taking action. I learned how important their Catholic faith is to them, the selfless concept of charity, which can be seen in the concrete aid being offered to the victims. And it was very encouraging to see how openly the young volunteers, both Muslims and Christians, interacted with each other. Almost in unison they said that by working together, they came to understand the beliefs of the others better, but at the same time, were strengthened in their own sense of identity.