PHILIPPINES – “Marawi is all ruined, there is destruction everywhere”
Interview by Jonathan Luciano, ACN Philippines National Director, with Bishop Prelate of Marawi Edwin dela Peña (MSP) about the situation in the Prelature of Marawi in the Southern Philippines, where the terrorist Maute group attacked the city, killing Christians and burning down buildings including the Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians. At leasat 104 people have been killed and more than 12,500 families have been displaced. Fr. Chito Suganob, the Vicar General was abducted together with other Cathedral Staff. The Catholic
How is the situation now in the Prelature of Marawi?
We are still right in the midst of it. I don’t know how to describe it. Our people are not there anymore, they have been evacuated. Those who have been left behind, I don’t know what their situation is because there is a continuing state operation to wipe out the terrorists and there is aerial bombing too now. I don’t know how they are surviving it.
Was the Cathedral totally destroyed?
Yes, I was told that the cathedral and the bishop’s house have been totally destroyed, first by being set on fire, and then by the bombing because they were right there at the center of the fighting. I’m not sure how soon we will be able to recover but it is going to be very difficult for all of us, not only for Christians but for the Muslims as well.
How were Muslim-Christian relations in Marawi before the incident happened?
Marawi is about 95% Muslim. Christians are a very tiny minority – we are a very small church in Marawi and the greater bulk of the Catholic population in the city is in the university where we have students coming from other provinces in Mindanao.
We were engaged in interfaith dialogue with many partners. In fact, Fr. Cito was in the thick of it because his primary focus is to connect with all the Muslim NGOs who have partnered with us in community development and education for interfaith dialogue. It was beautiful until this extremism emerged – the fighting, the presence of these extremist elements from the Middle East, and the radicalization of young people that is coming into the country today, especially here in Mindanao. Generally, our relations with our Muslim partners have always been very positive. In fact, we learned from them that they are also against this influx of IS elements coming into Marawi because they know exactly what the consequences would be for the culture of the people, for their way of life. The people of Marawi have always been very peaceful.
Is it correct to say that the general population is not sympathetic to IS elements?
Yes, that is correct, especially what is happening today. We are in Ramadan which is a very holy month for them but the people are not able to celebrate it the way they would have wanted to. They feel a certain anger against these terrorist groups coming in to disturb their holy observance of Ramadan. So if these extremist groups wanted to get the support of the people, they are not getting it.
Based on your knowledge of how IS operates in the Middle East, do you see any difference with what is happening in Syria and Iraq versus what is happening now in Marawi?
It is something like that. It may not be another Syria or Iraq but the way the city is now after the bombing and all, it doesn’t look like Marawi anymore. The remnants of the old city, everything that we see on the news feed about Marawi is all ruined, there is destruction everywhere. That is the image we have in mind of Syria and Iraq.
Who are the Maute group who led this terrorist attacks in Marawi?
The Maute group, also known as the Islamic State of Lanao, is a radical Islamist group composed of former Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas and some foreign fighters led by Abdullah Maute, the alleged founder of an Islamic state group based in Lanao del Sur, Mindanao,
Now that the drug trade has been controlled, those people who were used to a life of comfort before with all the money that was pouring in to drug trade are left on their own. The local authority has no resources to support them. That was probably one factor that led towards their radicalization because they have to fend for themselves. We were also informed that money was coming in from outside the country and foreign elements are training terrorist fighters in the lairs of Lanao del Sur.
The government has kept denying that there is an IS presence in the Philippines. What can you say about that?
I’m not so sure about it. I’m not the right person to speak about it, I’m just echoing what I know. They can deny it for as long as they want but some people have even been trained abroad. The Maute brothers studied in the Middle East. They come from very rich families so they have the means to send their children to school in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. I heard about it.
Is there a relationship between Maute and the infamous terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf?
I think so, the fact that Hapilon ( formerly leader of Abu Sayyaf Group before its battalions pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) is in Lanao. In fact they were about to serve him with a warrant of arrest before all this happened. That was the trigger. Abu Sayyaf have a tactical alliance with the Maute brothers in Lanao Sur aside from the fact that both are also sympathetic to IS, so they are probably joining forces.
Do you have any updates about Fr. Chito and other kidnapped Christians?
I am aware of the video of Fr. Chito that was released yesterday. He is alive! I am happy about that but sad also about the reactions of the DDS netizens (DDS stands for Digong Duterte Supporters- the supporters of the president), who castigated him for his message without any regard for his present situation as a hostage deprived of his freedom. We have lost our sense of humanity! How sad! I grieve for this country and I am so sorry for the situation of Fr. Chito and companions.
We did not have any contact with the military until a few days ago when I was able to link up with the chief commanding officer of the Marines division who are doing the mopping up operations in Marawi right now. He promised they would do their best to locate Fr. Chito and companions. They are about 12-15 people. Some of them were teachers from nearby Dansalan college and they just happened to meet together in one place but many of them were at the Cathedral at the time because they were preparing for the feast of Mary Help of Christians the following day. So we had many people in the house and in the Church doing all sorts of things.
Do you consider this incident as an escalation of the various anti-Christian events that have happened in Mindanao?
Yes, I suppose it is.
Do you know of any personal stories of solidarity between Muslims and Christians these past few days?
Yes, personal knowledge about the family of my driver who were holed up in one of the rice mills in Marawi city. Accompanying them was their chairman who is Maranaw and he was the one who organized the group and gave them advice as to how they should respond if the Maute fighters intercept them along the way. So they went out of the house together towards the bridge where the buses were waiting to take them out of Marawi. I would consider him a hero for leading this group of Christians and Muslims together, trying to flee from the danger that was awaiting them.
There were some people in the same group who were trying to catch up. They were trying to cross the bridge, when they were accosted by the Maute terrorists. They were asked if they were Christians. Unfortunately, they responded yes because they were not there when the advice was given. Another fellow, the husband of one of our adopted families living in the cathedral compound in Marawi, was pulled out of the group because he was wearing sleeveless clothing and he had a cross tattoo on his shoulder so he was identified as a Christian. Later we heard reports of some men being killed and dropped into a ravine. They say they were the ones who were trying to catch up with the group, trying to join the convoy of evacuees. You can read in the papers too about so many stories of Muslims trying to protect Christians.
How would this incident affect Christian-Muslim relations in Marawi?
We cannot help it but some of the natural bias that Christians have against Muslims will be stirred up again, even among some people who now familiar with what we have been doing here in Marawi and the kind of relationship that we have built up through the years.
This is very frustrating work that we are doing. Interfaith dialogue is a very fragile process and these incidents can destroy the foundation that we have built. Some people are fueling these anti-Muslim sentiments. We don’t like that to happen because it is so sad: we’ve made very good headway in the improvement of relationships between Muslims and Christians in Marawi. In fact, comparing our relationship with that in other places, I can safely say that the Muslim-Christian relations among the Maranaos are the best.
We have done so much in 41 years, the Prelature is almost 41 years old. We also have schools, which were there even before the Prelature was established, and our schools have always been dear to our Muslim brothers and Christians because many of their parents studied there. Professionals in the town have gone to our schools and they would always send their children to our schools because they have developed that kind of patronage and loyalty to our schools.
What is your message to the ACN community worldwide?
It is very unfortunate that our small prelature which is the smallest and poorest local church in the Philippines had to undergo this very difficult crisis. Our Cathedral has been destroyed, the parish, the Bishop’s house has been destroyed and we have to start from scratch trying to rebuild, to re-establish Christian presence in this predominantly Muslim area of Central Mindanao. We have to continue with our mission of offering the hand of reconciliation and friendship with our Muslim brothers and sisters because this was the legacy of Pope Paul VI when he re-established the prelature of Marawi at the height of the crisis in the early 70s. The Pope said, quoting Bishop Tutu, “We Christians should be the first to offer the hand of reconciliation and brotherhood to our Muslim brothers and sisters. That is the way to establish peace that had been broken because of the war.”
I think that the same holds true for our present situation today. We cannot turn our backs on what we have started, what the Prelature had begun in the middle 70s, to continue the work of dialogue, continue working with our Muslim brothers and sisters to establish and rebuild broken relationships, the broken dreams and hopes of so many people to live in peace. We just want to live in peace and we would like to ask you to help us to rebuild that peace with the kind of work that we do: working with and being in dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Which are your urgent needs at the moment?
We are not so much concerned about our needs at the moment, our focus is more trying to do what we can to respond to the humanitarian crisis that has happened in Iligan right now. We have so many evacuees from Marawi and they need all the support that we can get. That is why some of our dioceses and even Caritas Filipinas in Manila and Archdiocese of Manila through Cardinal Chito Tagle and all the other dioceses in the Philippines have asked us how they can be of help, where they can send all their donations.
So we have partnered with the Diocese of Iligan to put up these command centers at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in Iligan City to receive donations and organise volunteers to do the repacking and distribution. We are also working with our Muslim brothers and sisters who are in dialogue with us. It is a great opportunity for us to show our solidarity and try to respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters especially in the evacuation centers. So this is what we are doing and if there is anything you can do to help us, to bring the attention of the world to what is happening in Marawi right now or help with the relief operations, we would welcome it very much.
Jonathan Luciano – ACN Philippines