Narrative and Reflection of a Filipino SDB on a visit to Marawi
Cebu, the Philippines, 6 October 2019 -- Note: Marawi is a city and the capital of the Lanao del Sur province in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of the Philippines. It became known worldwide in 2017 for the 'Siege of Marawi' a bloody battle between ISIL and Government forces.
- At 7 pm the Cokaliong boat departed on time for Iligan City via Ozamis. I was accommodated in the Tourist class at 1,200Php. It was decent and the aircon was very strong.
- After a 2-hour stop-over in Ozamis the boat left for Iligan and arrived there at around 9:30 am. Professor Albert and Riza Ambos, parents of Airene Ambos, a companion in the Silsilah program, were very kind to fetch me accompanied by Lengleng the younger sister of Airene.
- From the pier we immediately left Iligan city for Marawi City. Half way to Marawi City I asked to pass by the Bishop’s house for a courtesy call with Bishop Edwin dela Peña. It was Friday and I was fortunate to reach the Bishop who was scheduled to leave for a two-day trip to 2 parishes in his prelature which he currently administers due to the lack of priests.
- The whole prelature has 4 parishes, 1 quasi parish, and 1 Chaplaincy with only 2 Diocesan priests: Msgr. Ramonito S. Torres, the Vicar General, on loan from the Diocese of Dumaguete; Fr Jhunryll S. Honoridez, the Parish Priest of the Cathedral. Fr Teresito L. Soganub is on leave after the 5-month abduction during the siege. Fr Evergisto F. Bernaldez belongs to the Prelature but is doing a mission in Australia.
- After a healthy lunch, cooked by the Bishop himself, we left for Marawi City.
- I was housed in the Catholic Chaplaincy Cottage inside the Mindanao State University.
- The Chaplaincy was preparing for their September 8 fiesta. I celebrated the 4:30 pm novena mass. The Chapel was filled to capacity.
- At 6:30pm some students came back to the Chaplaincy for the Ecological Ministry overnight.
- The chaplaincy has a very vibrant Catholic Student Organization for 35 years now. The Catholic Students in MSU come from the different provinces of Mindanao. These students are just hungry for such a kind of organization for spiritual nourishment and as a healthy diversion after classes.
- The Catholic Organization has 12 different ministries. During the week, overnights are organized for the formation of the members in these ministries. Usually it starts at 7pm with a 30-minute well organized prayer service. This is followed by the formation session until 10pm. At 10pm everyone goes to their assigned sleeping corners although some students also bring along their school works. At 5 am the next day everyone joins the morning praise before going home. In all this, supper and breakfast are provided. This is a welcome benefit for students whose allowance has not yet arrived.
- In the Chaplaincy house I am accompanied by 2 young professionals: Godfrey Mordeno, a legal assistant in the Social Action Center of the Prefecture; and Maria Yrene Bartolome, a research assistant in the Chemistry Department of MSU. A Student Assistant, Menard Roy Estavas is the mainstay in charge for the upkeep of the Chaplaincy.
- I was surprised when they invited me for lauds and vespers. They were introduced to the Christian Prayer by one former chaplain and by the Daughters of Charity who managed the chaplaincy before the siege. After the siege the Daughters of Charity withdrew from chaplaincy.
- I concelebrated with the Bishop during the 7am fiesta mass in the University Auditorium. This is a regular Sunday mass. The Bishop graced the occasion being the feast of Mary. This is also the fiesta of the chaplaincy. After the mass I accompanied the Bishop in visiting the families celebrating the fiesta. September 9 -17
- The regular activity these days were the usual daily masses every 4:30pm and my personal initiative to sit for confessions daily from 3:15pm till 4:15pm. Not so many people came for confessions but a significant number came in the later part of the week. Perhaps this was due to the shortage of priests and they have no time to sit for confessions.
- I had a chance as well to celebrate a Sunday mass for the few families who are still in the tent houses since the siege.
- In one afternoon I was fortunate to drive around the housing project organized by the social action of the Prelature, passing through a portion of the ground zero.
- I likewise found time one afternoon to meet my classmates in Silsilah who came from the area.
Purpose of the visit
My aim in visiting Marawi was to immerse myself in an Islamic City while waiting for my permanent Pakistan visa. I did not intend to stay in a Muslim family for immersion. Instead I immersed myself in the very vibrant Catholic community of young people. I attended to their sacramental needs and giving them input upon request.
I came to know personal experiences during the siege by listening to both the youth and the adults. I tried my best to listen patiently to learn from them and likewise to be an instrument of healing. I can sense some deep traumas yet faith experiences were also not wanting. There may not be a very organized de-briefing for the community but surely the experiences of faith helped them cope with the situation and gave them the strength to move on. The standard greeting in the whole Prelature is “Maayong Good Morning” regardless of the time of day. The late Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud introduced the greeting as a sense of hope and optimism in the midst of challenging situations. Among the many miracles during the siege which contributed to the faith experience was the escape of the 15 women hostages. One of them managed to keep a rosary from getting confiscated. They held on to this and prayed the rosary every now and then. After the 4-month capture and being transferred from one house to another every night, their SOS written with a lipstick on a piece of white cloth was seen by the military. A message was sent instructing them to escape during the night to a place where the military can rescue them. Their prayer to ‘Maria Auxiliadora’ was to escape in the night while the guards were asleep. One night the chance came. The guards were asleep and they started to find their way out. Unfortunately one of them accidentally stumbled on a G.I. roof making a loud noise; nevertheless the guards were not awakened. Guided by the moonlight they managed to reach the safe place where they were rescued.
Bishop Edwin was fortunate to have gone for a mission in one parish during the siege. He was about to return to the cathedral in the afternoon of May 23 to prepare for the fiesta the next day. Fr Chito sent him a message to stay out of the city. Fr Chito and two staff Wilbert and Sam together with some painters preparing the cathedral for the feast day became hostages. Together with them were other male Christians. In their 5-month ordeal Fr Chito was almost executed together with the other male hostages. The local extremists, those from Marawi, recognized him being active in the peace talks and in supporting calamity victims of the area. The ‘extremists’ from Luzon or from outside the country, were the most brutal. Sam was tasked to take arms and stay in the front line where he met his death. This happened to most of the male hostages. Wilbert was tasked to drive the extremist till he died in an ambush. The women who were separated from the men were tasked to assemble the improvised explosive devices. There were Muslims who were not sympathizers to the cause of the extremists. Most of them left Marawi. A common remark from the Christians is that, If not for the extremists who were foreigners or non-Maranaws, the siege could have been prevented. Issues could have been resolved peacefully.
There were Christians during the siege that were saved because they were protected by their Muslim employers. There were also Christian families who managed to escape Marawi during the siege through the assistance of the other Muslim families. When the evacuees reached the evacuation area, most of them in the nearby Iligan City or Cagayan City, Muslim evacuees experienced a lot of discrimination from their Christian hosts. They were perceived as extremists themselves. This was especially felt by the women wearing head gear.
The Potential of the Students in Mindanao State University: Extremists, Fundamentalist Christians, Committed Catholics
The students admitted to the Mindanao State University are full of potential. The Muslim students are a target for recruitment ro the extremism movement. The Christians are either recruited to the active Fundamentalist Christian movements in the campus or recruited to join the Catholic Student Organization. At present there are Muslim students who were surrenderees. Hence the Christian students have to be careful with some of their classmates. The Catholic students who are active in the ministries of the Chaplaincy are very fertile prospects for Priestly or Religious Vocations. Vocation recruitment was not in my mind in coming to Marawi, yet the youth themselves requested me to talk about my vocation. In fact 1 alumnus of the Student organization followed me in Cebu to join the Vocation Orientation in Lawaan. There are 4 others who will come for the vocation orientation this December.
Implications for the FIS Province
The plan to open a Salesian House in Laguindingan, Cagayan is very strategic. I realize that there are plenty of good young people in the areas of Iligan, Cagayan, Suragao, and Agusan that we can reach with the opening in Laguindingan. The good Catholic students studying in MSU Marawi mostly came from these places. The seed of faith is just so strong in them that the Salesians should also reach out.