ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews/ 09 July) — On May 24, Catholics in the country’s lone Islamic city were supposed to celebrate the feast of Mary Help of Christians. And on May 27, Muslims worldwide began observing the holy month of Ramadan. But on May 23, Islamic State-inspired gunmen collectively called the Maute Group launched a siege in the city that has displaced most of the civilians and forced the government to deploy thousands of troops and use every weapon at its disposal.
On the night of the attack, the Maute Group snatched Fr. Teresito“Chito” Suganob and at least 12 of his parishioners and continues to hold them hostage to this day (July 9). The kidnapping demonstrated its intolerance toward, nay, deep hatred for other religions and fellow Muslims who don’t subscribe to its interpretation of Islam.
In sum, the attack spoiled two significant religious occasions of two faiths. Worse, it may have washed down the drain years of tenacious efforts to forge understanding between Christians and Muslims not only in this city but also in neighboring towns.
Bishop Edwin dela Pena of the Marawi Prelature placed the total Christian population in the city and in the towns of Balabagan and Malabang in Lanao del Sur and Sultan Naga Dimaporo town in Lanao del Norte at around 35,000. Dela Pena says it is difficult to say what the Catholic population in Marawi is as most of them are transients.
However, the ongoing conflict has driven out Christians from Marawi where most of them worked for Maranao employers.
It’s not the numbers, however, that worried dela Pena. “Interfaith dialogue has become more challenging, we can’t go back to where we were before,” the bishop, in an earlier interview with MindaNews said.
Interfaith dialogue in Mindanao, Marawi and Lanao in particular, dates back to the Marcos era and was initiated by progressive entities of the Catholic and Protestant churches. At some point during the height of the martial law repression so-called cause-oriented groups managed to inject a political element into such initiative. This led to the emergence of groups like the Muslim-Christian Alliance where Christians and Muslims shared leadership functions. More important, it joined the ranks of groups fighting the dictatorship.
But it was Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud (1931-1987) of the Diocese of Iligan who pioneered in efforts to foster understanding between Christians and Muslims. His advocacy led the Vatican to create the Prelature of Marawi, then under the Iligan Diocese, on 8 December 1976, which explains why the local church was named after the Virgin Mary, the date being the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Tudtud, who had studied Islam, was appointed as its first bishop the year after.
Although known for his common touch, wit and humor, the new assignment was never a walk in the park for Tudtud even if the church made it clear from the start that it came to Marawi not to engage in conversion but in dialogue. Years of conflict and cultural divide that had created so much distrust and animosity that incidents believed to be meant to harass Christians, such as the kidnapping of Carmelite nuns in 1986, did occur. Nonetheless, the prelature persisted even after Tudtud’s death in 1987 in a plane crash.
A few days before his death, the Prelature came out with a vision statement encapsulating the social setting and dialogic nature of its mission. It says in part: “This same dialogue demands a deep respect for the faith of others, for the way they understand it, and also for the manner in which they express it. The faith of the others may not be judged from the perspectives and categories of one’s own faith. Thus dialogue also demands serious study of the faith and religion of others, as well as one’s own.”
Forty years after, the fruits of dialogue may be gleaned from how Muslims [in Marawi] protected their Christian employees and friends from being harmed by the Maute gunmen.
“If we die, we die together. If we survive, we survive together,” one story quoted female Maranao students who never abandoned their Christian friends at the most critical hours of the siege, as having said.
Arnold Saropio, one of the workers at a furniture shop who eluded the attackers, said they managed to escape, thanks to the help of their Maranao employer, Michael Gani. He didn’t know what the gunmen did to Gani.
Yet, these acts of heroism may have been drowned out by resurgent anti-Muslim sentiments. Many Christians don’t bother to distinguish the Maute Group from the rest of the Muslims who only wish to coexist peacefully with Christians. For instance, news reports said that [some] house and apartment owners in Cagayan de Oro City have refused to lease their properties to Muslims.
Dela Pena could be right in saying that the siege may have wasted away the fruits of the seeds sown by Tudtud. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at [email protected])