ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews / 03 June 2017) — Bishop Edwin dela Pena was supposed to go to Marawi City from his base in Balabagan, Lanao del Sur on Tuesday, May 23, but a fiesta mass in a village that was supposed to have started at 8:30 a.m. began at 9:30, there was a wedding and a baptism to attend to and by the time he finished, it was past noon. Back in his office, he had to work on the Parish Bulletin which they give out to each member of the Basic Ecclesial Communities.
When he was done, it was 3 p.m., a bit late for the two-and-a-half hour travel to Marawi along the Narciso Ramos highway. But the 63-year old Bishop, a member of the Mission Society of the Philippines, said he would still proceed as he was used to traveling that way at mid-afternoon and the following day was a major event for Catholics in the country’s lone Islamic City.
As he was preparing to leave, Dela Pena received a phone call from a frantic Fr. Teresito “Chito” Soganub, Vicar-General of the Prelature, Acting Rector of the cathedral and chaplain at the Mindanao State University (MSU).
Fr. Chito’s voice sounded “mabalak-on kaayo” (very worried). He told his Bishop not to proceed “kay gubat na diri” (there’s war here), that several armed men in black could be seen roaming the streets, firing their guns and putting up black flags in stragetic areas.
“Ingon siya ayaw na lang dayon” (he told me not to proceed), Dela Pena told MindaNews at the Iligan Bishop’s residence here on Tuesday.
Dela Pena acceded to his priest’s appeal and informed him he would instead proceed to Marawi early morning. Having lived in Marawi for over a decade and having gotten used to the sound of gunfire, the Bishop imagined it would be over the next day.
But Fr. Chito insisted, “ayaw na lang gyud kay lisod na gyud kaayo” (do not proceed anymore because it’s so difficult). He described the situation in detail and that this “gubat” was different from all the rest.
“Ayaw na lang gyud kay murag di gyud mahinayon ang atong fiesta ani” (Do not come over. It’s likely we won’t be able to celebrate our fiesta), Fr. Chito told the Bishop.
The feast of María Auxiliadora (Mary, Help of Christians), the patron saint of the Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora, more popularly refered to as St. Mary’s Church in the Prelature of Marawi, was the major event the Bishop was traveling to Marawi for.
Expectedly, there were parishioners in the Cathedral and the convent that afternoon, practising, cleaning up, decorating the church, cooking for the next day’s fiesta. It was also the last day of the nine-day novena.
By nightfall, the church would be up in flames.
“Dialogue of life and faith”
The country’s lone Islamic City has 96 barangays and a population of 201,785 based on the 2015 Census of Population of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). It is the most populous area in the five-province, two-city Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), according to PSA records.
The daytime population is even more because Marawi, where Kilometer Zero, the original reference point of all roads in Mindanao is located, is the trading center of the province of Lanao del Sur. The first burst of gunfire between government forces and terrorists happened shortly after lunch.
The Prelature of Marawi was established in 1976 with Bienvenido Tudtud as its first Bishop.
It was in this Islamic City where the seeds of interfaith dialogue — the dialogue of life and faith — were planted and nourished and transplanted to other dioceses, archdioceses and vicariates in Mindanao, the rest of the Philippines and beyond.
The Prelature was set up, in accordance with Pope Paul VI’s mandate, for “dialogue of life and faith” with Muslims, “not for conversion” of Muslims.
It was under Bishop Tudtud when Duyog Ramadan, the Christians’ accompaniment of their Muslim brothers and sisters during the month-long Ramadan, began.
Tudtud died in a plane crash en route to Baguio City in 1987.
The Prelature covers Marawi City and Malabang and Balabagan towns in Lanao del Sur and Sultan Naga Dimaporo and Balo-i in Lanao del Norte.
Dela Pena says it is difficult to say what the Catholic population in Marawi is as most of the Catholics there are transients — sales personnel, street cleaners, laborers, teachers, some soldiers and police officers. The Catholic students at the Mindanao State University (MSU) main campus in Marawi stay only for four or five years.
“We have no figures to give definitely,” he said, adding some Catholics in the city may not even know where the Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora is because unlike other Catholic churches elsewhere, it has no cross on its facade.
A grenade lobbed at the Bishop´s house in 1994 killed a worker of the Prelature´s Communication Apostolate.
On Sundays, the Bishop narrates, it is not surprising to see only half of the pews occupied as some of the Catholic workers in Marawi may be working and those who work in Meranaw families are stay-in employees. Some employers, he said, allow their workers to go to Sunday mass but some don’t.
Muslims helping, protecting Christians
Dela Pena has been Bishop of the Prelature since 2001 but was assigned there in 2000 as Prelate.
He spent his formation years in Marawi when Bishop Tudtud recruited him to the priesthood and stayed with him as a seminarian from 1979 to 1981. Marawi became his first assignment after his ordination, from 1981 to 1983.
Dela Pena recalled that they started Duyog Ramadan in Marawi City when he was still a seminarian and the Protestants later joined until it became Mindanao-wide.
Since the clashes between government forces and the Maute Group and its allied terrorist groups (Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, according to the military) started on May 23, a number of heartwarming accounts have come out on how Muslims — poor, middle class or belonging to prominent clans — helped and are helping protect Christians from the terrorists, orienting them on what to do and what to say when a terrorist approaches them, and how prominent Muslims such as Norodin Lucman stayed behind to be with their 71 Christian workers.
Lucman led them to safety early Saturday morning, tagging along the 71 Christian workers he sheltered. When residents hiding in their houses and buildings saw the group moving out to cross the bridge to safety, they joined them — Muslims and Christians — all together, a total of 172, according to Naguib Sinarimbo, a volunteer at the Provincial Crisis Management Committee.
The phone call
Bishop dela Pena did not leave for Marawi that Tuesday afternoon. But he continued to hope that the “gubat” would end the next day. He was anxious, he admits. “Naa koy kabalaka. Di gyud nako ma-explain akong kaugalingon. Naa koy kahadlok basi makasulod sa Cathedral, sa Bishop’s House.” (I was apprehensive. I could not explain what I was feeling. I was afraid they’d enter the Cathedral and the Bishop’s House).
Between 7:30 and 7:45 that evening, what he dreaded most came true. Dela Pena received a phone call from his secretary at the Prelature. “Natarantar ko kay dili man siya ang nitubag. Lalaki na isog ba unya demanding kaayo ” (I was confused because it was the voice of a man who was so aggressive and demanding), who introduced himself as leader of the group that seized Fr. Chito.
Dela Pena recalls the man gave him an hour to link up with the mlitary and to tell them they want government to declare a unilateral ceasefire, to stop chasing them, in exchange for the safety of the hostages the Bishop estimated to be around 12 to 15.
“Wala ko nakatubag. Mura akog natulala” (I could not answer. I was dumbfounded), he said.
As proof that, indeed, he had the priest and his companions, the man told the Bishop he would pass on the phone to Fr. Chito.
On the other end of the line, Fr. Chito acknowledged they were, indeed, held by the armed men.
“I would have wanted to talk to him about other things,” the Bishop recalled, but the man quickly grabbed the phone from Fr. Chito who merely translated to Cebuano what the man told the Bishop in Filipino.
“He was just mouthing the instruction,” Dela Pena said.
That was the last time he spoke with Fr. Chito.
When he put down the phone, the Bishop realized he didn’t have the number of the military’s Camp Ranao so he sought the help of Zamboanga Archbishop Romulo dela Cruz in Zamboanga City where the Western Mindanao Command is located.
Dela Cruz phoned Maj. Gen. Carlito Galvez, WestMinCom chief, who immediately called Bishop dela Pena.
Galvez’ instruction was for him to call the secretary’s number to ascertain their condition. The Bishop did, several times, but the phone just kept ringing until finally it was unattended.
As of 12 noon on Saturday, June 3, the Bishop had not received a call from the leader of the group holding Fr. Chito, or from Fr. Chito himself.
But on Tuesday, May 30, exactly a week after they were hostaged, a video of Fr. Chito was uploaded on Facebook, the priest appealing to President Rodrigo Duterte to stop the offensive against their abductors to save the hostages and stop the further destruction of the city.
It cannot be ascertained if the video was taken on the same day or earlier.
Fr. Chito was videotaped standing on a street, presumably still in Marawi City, with the ruins of a building behind him.
He said his fellow hostages include two female churchworkers, a female professor of the MSU, seven teachers of Dansalan College, and about 200 others.
He asked the President to withdraw his forces from Lanao Sur and Marawi City and to “stop the airstrikes, air attacks, and stop the cannons.”
“Mr. President, please follow your heart, please consider us,” Fr. Chito said.
“We are asking your good heart. Please consider us. We want to live another day, we want to live another month, we want to live a few years,” the priest said, adding the government’s enemies, refering to the Maute Group and its allies are “ready to die for their religion.”
“Frontliner in interfaith dialogue”
Ordained priest in 1995, Fr. Chito has been very active in inter-religious dialogue and is in fact described by Bishop dela Pena as the Prelature’s “frontliner in interfaith dialogue.”
He said Fr. Chito has links with several NGOs, both Christians and Muslims, whose aims are community development and interfaith dialogue. Through interfaith dialogue “naka abot man gani siyag Butig” (he even reached Butig) in Lanao del Sur, base of the Maute Group.
A “Plea for the Release” of Fr. Chito, posted on Facebook by his friends shows how much loved Fr. Chito is by both Christians and Muslims.
It says: “You’d see him with his shining goatee and his humble batik as he walked the streets of Marawi. Ofentimes you’d catch him looking like a priest. Sometimes you’d mistake him for an Imam, sometimes a Santa Claus and even a cha-cha king if his rheuma permits. You’d see him standing smaller than the rest but amidst that small size and funny personality, you’d see a gigantic and serious commitment of a humble man who tirelessly convinces everyone that the road to peace in Mindanao is not through WAR but through sincere and respectful communications between Muslims and Christians.”
“We plea for the safe release of Father Chito!! A champion grassroot campaigner for PEACE and SOCIAL JUSTICE in Mindanao, a pillar to the Christians and a true great friend to the Muslims. Be home soon, Fr. Chito! The world still has a lot to hear and learn from a brave and kind man like you. And we are also tying yellow ribbons for other Marawi hostages, that they, too, can safely come back home,” the posted appeal said.
This is not the first time a priest was abducted in the Prelature. Ten Carmelite nuns and two priests have been abducted in the late 1980s and 1990s, including an Irish Columban missionary, Monsignor Desmond Hartford, who served as Apostolic Administrator of the Prelature from 1991 to 2001.
Hartford, who was succeded by Dela Pena, was kidnapped and held for two weeks in 1997 by disgruntled members of the Moro National Liberation Front whom the Monsignor knew, to pressure the government to release rehabilitation funds they claimed had been promised them following the signing of the 1996 Final Peae Agreement.
Like in previous kidnappings, Muslims helped negotiate for their release.
Within hours after the “gubat” in Marawi, President Duterte who was in Moscow on an official visit, declared martial law for 60 days in all of Mindanao’s 27 provinces and 33 cities effective 10 p.m. By then, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told a press conference in Moscow, the clashes had left two soldiers and a police officer dead, and 12 others injured.
The declaration of Martial Law was a decision that shocked the nation, particularly as its announcement came nearly midnight, when most Filipinos were in deep slumber.
Bishop dela Pena could hardly sleep that night as they waited for information on the hostages but he found out that martial law had been declared only in the morning because there is no television in Balabagan as there has been no electricity there in the last four years.
“I woke up in the morning, martial law na diay.”
He found out only when the alarm rang at 4:30 a.m. and he saw the text messages flooding his mobile phone about martial law, some asking about Fr. Chito, some wondering if he was in Balabagan or in Marawi, others expressing relief he was not among those hostaged.
Dela Pena said he had so many questions. “I maybe wrong (but) mao nia akong gibati. Masama akong loob nahimo kaming hinungdan nga ideklara ang martial law. Tibuok Mindanao pa gyud. Nganong tibuok Mindanao man nga nia sa Marawi ang conflict localized man” (this is how I feel. I feel bad that we were made the reason to declare martial law. And in all of Mindanao. Why in the entire Mindanao when the conflict is localized?).
He said the public is being told that the ISIS has been deployed in major cities and that attacks would erupt simultaneously, that this island will be on fire, plus reports on local politics, make Marawi City some sort of sacrifical lamb.
“The irony of it all kuno ang mga Mindanawon is in favor of it even kuno the Bishops are in favor of martial law. Di baya ingon niana (It’s not like that),” Dela Pena said, adding the Mindanao Bishops’ statement on May 26 was clear that martial law must be temporary, that for now, there are “no solid and sufficient facts to absolutely reject the declaration of Martial Law as morally reprehensible.”
“But we are certainly agreed that Martial Law must be temporary,” the Bishops said in their statement, as they vowed to “condemn any abuse of Martial Law and as in the past will condemn it outright if it goes in the way of evil.”
“Let us be vigilant,” the Bishops exhorted the public.
Dela Pena said the Bishops of Mindanao (Mindanao has at least 21 Bishops for five Archdioceses, 14 Dioceses, a Vicariate and a Prelature) conferred by text if they would come together to meet on the Marawi Crisis and the declaration of martial law. But Archbishop dela Cruz said it may not be practical given the situation so they asked someone to draft the statement and pass it on to them for comments and critique, until it was finally approved. Mindanao’s lone Cardinal, Orlando Quevedo, the Archbishop of Cotabato, signed the statement on behalf of the Mindanao bishops.
When the “gubat” is over
Like most residents of Marawi, Bishop dela Pena fears he won’t be able to recognize Marawi when the “gubat” is over.
“Murag dili na nako mailhan sa footages lang na gipakita murag guba gyud ang Marawi perti gyud gubaa” (I may not be able to recognize anymore based on the footages on TV, it’s like Marawi is destroyed, very much destroyed).
He said he wonders if they can still recognize the Cathedral compound or if the Bishop’s House still stands, having heard reports “that for a while the Bishop’s house was used as some kind of headquarters.”
“Kadto pud siguro, gipulverize pud siguro to. Ingon niana ba. Perti gyud kabalaka na among gibati ba” (That may have been pulverized, too. It really worries us), Dela Pena added.
The St. Mary’s Chruch is definitely gone, the church they repaired little by little because the Prelature has no means to complete the repair in one sweep.
The Prelature of Marawi has linked up with the Diocese of Iligan for a coordinated response to the crisis, particularly on the humanitarian response to help the evacuees. As of May 31 alone, the total number of residents who evacuated had reached 140,155, representing nearly 70% of the total population.
He has called on Ranao Christian-Muslim Volunteers to help in the relief efforts as many have expressed interest to send help through the church.
He said they have a strategy for Marawi residents who are temporarily staying in evacuation centers and another strategy for home-based evacuees or those who are staying with relatives.
Their Muslim volunteers, he said, are at the forefront of the relief efforts “para dili ta makatapak og sensitivities na mga Muslim” (so we do not encroach on sensitivites of Muslims).
The bishop admits it will be “more challenging” for the Prelature when the “gubat” is over.
But he remains optimistic that they can overcome the challenges because there have been “too many gains on the part of us Christians who engage in dialogue with Muslims and on the part of the Muslims who are our partners.”
“We have come to the conclusion that Mindanao belongs to us, both of us, that we have to learn to live together in peace. Ato ni, ato gyud ning paningkamotan, atong pangalagaan” (This is ours. Let us work harder for this. Let us nurture it), he said.
“Labaw pang magpadayon ang interfaith dialogue tungod niining mapait nga kasinatian nga naghimo kanamo nga parehong mga biktima. (There’s all the more reason to continue interfaith dialogue because of this bitter experience that made both Christians and Muslims victims” of terrorists.
“Never again will we allow the guns to do the talking. Dialogue is the only viable option to resolve conflicts among us,” Dela Pena told MindaNews by text mesage on Saturday.
The aborted fiesta mass in Marawi City on May 24, 2017 was officiated by the Bishop that afternoon in Balabagan town, with special intentions for Fr. Chito and the hostages and for the safety of all Muslims and Christians in besieged Marawi. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)