Following a bomb attack by extremists at a gymnasium at the University of Mindanao in the Philippines which killed four worshippers and injured 50 others, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has released a statement, offering prayers and affirming their faith in the face of persecution;

“We pray for the eternal repose of those who have died, and for the healing of those who have been injured.

“We unite ourselves spiritually with their families and draw strength and consolation from our faith in Christ who will ‘restore all things to himself, making peace by the blood of his cross”, they said.

Terrorists detonated a bomb at a gymnasium at the University of Mindanao where hundreds of faithful had gathered on the first Sunday of Advent, at the beginning of what would have been the Week of Peace in Marawi Diocese, southern Philippines.

Father Sebastiano D’Ambra, a missionary at the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), who was on the scene within hours of the atrocity, spoke to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

He said the perpetrators’ identity and motives are not yet known, but “there is no doubt that Christians were the target”.

Father D’Ambra added: “What was meant to be a week full of positive peace-building moments has become a time of terror.”

The missionary warned about the possible impact of the atrocity on the Christian community, which is only two percent of the Island of Mindanao’s population.

He explained that the university draws Christians from other parts of the island to Marawi, and “there is a danger that the attack will provoke an exodus of the Catholic minority.

“Many families have already urged their children to return to their homelands because of the fear that the Christians are feeling.”

The missionary highlighted: “Just a few days ago we marked #RedWednesday, an ACN initiative which is celebrated across the Philippines and is supported by the Bishops’ Conference as a day to remember Christians from all over the world who are persecuted because of their faith.

“Who could have guessed that just a few days later we would be experiencing this violence first-hand?”

Father D’Ambra has been supporting interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims in the Philippines since 1984.

He said: “Episodes such as this one in Marawi only worsen an already complicated situation and make it more difficult to promote interreligious dialogue.

“These are new challenges, and they make our work, which is coming up to 40 years, as important now as it was in the beginning.”

Pope Francis said during the Angelus on the same day: “I wish to assure my prayer for the victims of the attack that occurred this morning in the Philippines, where a bomb exploded during Mass.

“I am close to the families and the people of Mindanao, who have already suffered so much.”