PHILIPPINES – Marawi: Abducted Christians may be used as bargaining chips


“I hope the government will act wisely and prudently in order to avoid a bloodbath.” The words are those of PIME missionary Father Sebastiano D’Ambra and he is referring in particular to the abduction of Father Teresito Soganub, together with 15 other Christians, in the last few days in the city of Marawi, on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Their fate remains unknown.

Just a week ago Islamic jihadist extremists of the so-called Maute group seized control of the town. The dramatic clashes between Islamist rebels and the Filipino army have so far claimed around a hundred lives. As 50,000 people fled the city of Marawi, local sources spoke of barbarous killings and beheadings by the Islamist group. Terrified residents reported young jihadis taking orders from commanders in their early 20s to force people to recite verses of the Islamic  –  unable to do so were shot dead to a chorus of laughter. 

President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law across the entire southern region of Mindanao, home to roughly 20 million people, in response to the crisis as he warned that local militant groups were uniting behind IS and becoming a major security threat. General Eduardo Ano, the military chief, said extremists had plotted to set Marawi ablaze entirely to project IS’ influence. The extremists wanted to kill Christians in nearby Iligan city on Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, to mimic the violence seen by the world in Syria and Iraq

Speaking on the telephone to representatives of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) from Zamboanga, another city in Mindanao, Father D’Ambra explained how the Islamist terrorists had abducted the Christians and set fire to the cathedral. “Probably, their intention is to use the captives as bargaining chips in order to persuade the army to withdraw”, he said. According to a report by the SITE Intelligence Group on Monday 29 May  the militants released a video in which they threatened to kill the hostages.

The Maute group is affiliated to so-called Islamic State (IS), to which it declared allegiance some time ago, and this is the reason why it is now flying the black flags of IS in the overwhelmingly Muslim city of Marawi (98% Muslim and just 2% Christian). It is now becoming clear that members of the Islamist terror group Abu Sayyaf were also involved in this most recent attack.

As the Italian missionary went on to explain, in recent years more and more international Islamist influences have infiltrated into the Philippines. They have succeeded in attracting new blood, partly through ideology but also thanks to the lavish rewards offered by the terrorists to the young recruits. “Not to mention the international interests that are seeking to destabilise this region. There appears to be a plan, which will continue in the same direction. The situation in Marawi will calm down before too long, but the terrorism will not stop”, he told ACN.

Radical Islamic terrorism has a long history on the island of Mindanao. Already back in the 1990s the Abu Sayyaf group was widely in action. The radicalisation has continued since then with the proliferation of Islamist movements of Wahhabi inspiration, supported by Saudi Arabia, while for a decade or so there has been a strong presence of the Islamist group Jemaah Islamiah, which originated in Indonesia. And in the last three years so-called Islamic State has found increasing support on Mindanao.

Likewise in Zamboanga City, on the western tip of Mindanao – where in 2013 the terrorist Islamist paramilitary group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) destroyed half the city – the government has declared martial law. “The authorities are calling on us to remain vigilant. Among other things the city lies on the coast, with kilometres of coastline and numerous islands where the extremists can easily hide”, said Father D’Ambra.

Father D’Ambra himself has been living in the Philippines for 40 years and is the founder of the Silsilah movement, which has been striving since 1984 to promote interfaith dialogue. It also involves part of the local Muslim community. “Incidents like what has happened in Marawi can only further aggravate a situation that is already complicated enough and make still more difficult the promotion of interreligious dialogue”, he told ACN.

 Marta Petrosillo – ACN International