Letter from the Philippines

Letter from the Philippines

Columban Father Paul Glynn, 26 May 2017

Dear Friends,

I feel the profound heartbreak of knowing that St Mary’s Cathedral, Marawi City, in the heart of Mindanao, in the Southern Philippines has been burned by Islamist terrorists. On 23 May 2017, the eve of the Fiesta of  the Cathedral’s patron, “Our Lady Help of Christians”, armed men entered the cathedral while the Vicar General of Marawi, Fr Chito Suganob and a group of  Catholic worshipers were celebrating the last Novena Mass. They forcibly abducted Fr Chito along with a number of his parishioners.

We received word of this when one of the abductors got Fr Chito to phone the Bishop of Marawi, Msgr Edwin de La Pena MSP. Fr Chito was told to inform the bishop that if he did not tell the army to stop pursuing the abductors, they would kill a hostage every hour, on the hour. Distraught, Bishop Edwin immediately phoned everyone he could think of, in the hope that someone among us may know someone of influence in the army. As I write, there is still no news of Fr Chito or his parishioners except for a picture of them, seemingly still alive, that was posted on Facebook the following morning, most probably, by the captives.

The nearby Dansalan College (run by United Church of Christ of the Philippines) was also burned and Christian staff and students were taken as captives. Reports have since come in that some of these staff and students were killed by the attackers because they could not recite the Shahadah, the Muslim profession of faith.

A young police inspector, Freddie Solar, was reportedly apprehended as he brought his wife to hospital and forced to pray in the Islamic way. When he failed to do so, he was killed on the spot, according to his wife who, even though she was ill, had to witness the whole thing. We are praying that the abductors will not treat Fr Chito and the other captives in such an inhumane manner.

It is very difficult to get accurate information because President Duterte has declared Martial Law in the whole of Mindanao since this attack on Marawi. The armed forces have locked down the city and are in an on-going battle with the terrorists. Part of the military operation involves evacuating the tiny minority Christian population to avoid the danger that they might be singled out by the attackers. Since yesterday thousands of Muslim residents are beginning to flee the conflict and are trying to make their way to neighboring cities. They do this as they begin their fast for the Holy Month of Ramadan.  Columban Father Enrique Escobar and other members of the local Interfaith Forum are helping to cope with the influx of more than 3,000, hungry, tired and traumatized Muslim families into the predominantly Christian Cagayan de Oro City.

Those of us who, like Fr Chito Suganob, have been involved in Muslim-Christian Dialogue here over the years are tempted to feel as if all the efforts to build lasting peace in Mindanao have, somehow, been razed to the ground in this brutal attack. It is truly heart-breaking. St Mary’s Marawi, from where Fr Chito and the other Catholics were abducted, together with nearby Dansalan College, from where the staff and students were attacked, are regarded by those who are involved in Interfaith Dialogue in Mindanao as “the cradle of Dialogue”. In 1976, during the height of a bloody war in Mindanao between Christians and Muslims, Bishop Benny Tudtud was encouraged by Pope Paul VI to be a “reconciling presence” between Muslims and Christians. He decided to resign his role as bishop of the predominantly Catholic City of Iligan and move to the Islamic City of Marawi. In a situation of conflict he took it upon himself to engage in Dialogue with the majority Muslim population as a “way of building bridges and breaking down walls” and he chose “to be ready to discover the face of God in the other’s faith” [Dialogue of Life and Faith, Bienvenido S. Tudtud (1988)]. American missionary, Pastor Peter Gordon Gowing of Dansalan College became his Christian colleague in sowing the seeds of dialogue and reconciliation together with their Muslim counterparts. It is, indeed, heartbreaking to think that this well spring of reconciliation and dialogue has been so badly assaulted by this senseless attack on St Mary’s and Dansalan College. We pray that new hope will spring from the smoking ruins.

Animosity between Christians and Muslims was first sown when the Spanish colonizers arrived in the Philippine islands and embarked upon a hostile policy of undermining the strong Islamic influences they encountered here. These seeds of mistrust between the two faiths were imported and sown almost 500 years ago. Once engrained, as one would expect, they are not easily uprooted.

Such mistrust is easily manipulated.  The bitter Muslim-Christian conflict that ignited in the early 1970’s gave President Ferdinand Marcos the ‘state of emergency’ he needed to declare Martial Law. Past experience has taught us that terrorist attacks, such as the recent attacks in Marawi, are not necessarily always only the work of Islamist extremists. Suspicion abounds that some of these attacks are, at times, orchestrated by corrupt military and government officials to keep Mindanao in a state of war; a war from which some continue to gain financially. With President Duterte’s declaration of Martial Law throughout Mindanao, following the attacks in Marawi, many are thinking back to the days of the Marcos dictatorship, hoping and praying that history is not repeating itself. This is especially the case since Duterte publically declares his political support for Marcos’s son, Bongbong, who claims that he was cheated out of winning the vice-presidency in last year’s elections. Hence speculations abound as to who may be supporting these attackers, known as the “Maute Group”, and why.

The Maute Group was founded by two brothers, Omar and Abdullah Maute. They both studied Islamic theology part-time, while they were working in Syria and then in the United Arab Emirates. Recently the Maute group has joined ranks with the much older Abu Sayyaf.  The Abu Sayyaf have engaged in kidnappings for ransom, bombings and other acts of terrorism for over 20 years, especially in the most southern islands of the Philippines that border Malaysia. It was during a military raid on a house in Marawi City, where Isnilon Hapilon, a member of the Abu Sayyaf, was said to be hiding, that the terror attack began. It is believed that the Maute group came to the help of Hapilon and his Abu Sayyaf companions. Rumors abound that certain corrupt, high-ranking politicians and military personnel have links to the Abu Sayyaf, benefiting from the perpetual state of war and, of course, the hefty ransoms gained from the kidnappings; hence the many speculations around at the moment as to who may be behind these attacks. Unfortunately, as with most controversial issues here, the full truth very rarely comes to light.

In the wake of these savage attacks, particularly on Christians, local Islamic leaders are again reminding their constituents that there is not a single verse in the Holy Qur’an that encourages the persecution of non-Muslims. On the contrary, verse 256 of the chapter entitled “Al-Baqara” teaches that no one should be compelled to convert to Islam. Many of the imams in Marawi and elsewhere try to dissuade support for the ideology of the Maute group and the Abu Sayyaf by explaining to their congregations how the Prophet Mohammad extended friendship to the Christian, Jewish and pagan communities in the Arabia of his time.

Aleem Alih Aiyub, Secretary General of the National Ulama Conference of the Philippines has issued the following statement in light of the ongoing violence in Marawi:

“Any act inciting terror in the hearts of defenseless civilians, the destruction of places of worship and properties, the murder of innocent men, women, and children, irrespective of one’s faith are all forbidden and detestable acts according to Islam. Sowing terror through force and violence has always been an invalid means of attaining societal changes, and cannot be justified through faith or religion. The Qur’an says: “If any one slays a person- unless it is as punishment for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew all people. And if any one saves a life, it would be as if he saved the lives of all people.” (Surah 5, verse 32).”

The effects are not just felt in Mindanao. Imam Alibasher Linog, a long-time partner in interfaith dialogue, is staying in our Columban mission house here in Manila again tonight. He had planned to stay with relatives in a predominantly Muslim part of Quiapo, in the down-town area of Manila. However, when he got there, the place was surrounded by fully armed military personnel and, out of fear for his safety, he asked to stay here with us. It is a tense time for everyone at the moment.

As we deal with this heart-breaking scenario and as we pray for new well springs to emerge, little signs of hope are springing up on Facebook and by SMS texts, whereby Christian and Muslim friends are expressing real concern for one another, for Marawi and for the future of peace in Mindanao. Messages of solidarity and support are being exchanged. As I write, bishops, priests, pastors and imams are meeting together in Cagayan de Oro to plan how they can work together to take care of the newly arrived refugees from Marawi. It is a time of deep grief – but at least, Muslims and Christians of goodwill are grieving together. I pray that we will never give up on our search for a just and lasting peace together. And may Fr Chito and those abducted with him live to be part of that ongoing search for peace!

Fr Paul Glynn