Philippines: “The faith is what constitutes the Church, not the circumstances!” Safe and secure in God among the ruins of Islamist destruction
by Hannah Kohn
Father Teresito Soganub was held hostage by Islamist extremists in the Philippine city of Marawi for almost four months. However, even captivity and the certainty of his own death have not made him falter in his efforts to achieve peaceful coexistence between the religions. Two years after the ordeal ACN publishes Father Soganubs interview with Mark von Riedemann.
It happened on the afternoon of 23 May 2017. The parishioners had come together in Mary Help of Christians Cathedral to pray for the patronal festival the following day. The congregation suddenly became aware of shots being fired in the city. Father Teresito Soganub, vicar general of the Territorial Prelature of Marawi, recalled how unusual this was, even for Marawi, where tensions are a normal part of daily life. As part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the city has an overwhelmingly Muslim majority and operates under a modified form of Sharia law. For him and five other members of the parish, this 23 May would become a critical turning point in their lives, the day on which the ISIS-linked rebels of the Maute group conquered their city and took them and more than 100 other residents of the city hostage as leverage against government forces. Over the next five months, more than 800 people would be killed, while hundreds of thousands of displaced persons fled the city. On 17 September, 116 days later, Father Soganub was finally rescued, while the fierce fighting over the city of Marawi continued to rage until 23 October 2017.
“Around 6 p.m., the police station and the prison were burning, but firefighters did not appear on the scene,” Father Teresito reported. A short time later, the flames had reached a nearby school. When the doors of the cathedral were flung open around 7 p.m., he thought at first that the army or police had arrived to bring them to safety. But the voice that rang through the megaphone, ordering them in English to cooperate if they wanted to remain unharmed, belonged to one of a group of men equipped with large calibre weapons: some wearing uniforms, others in civilian clothes. Unmasked, but armed to the teeth. The priest and the other hostages spent the next few hours in a van, travelling from one hiding place to another to avoid the retaliatory measures of the Philippine army. “They ordered us to contact the government and ask them to stop fighting the rebels,” Father Soganub described the traumatic hours. “And so, one after the other, I called them all, Bishop Edwin dela Peuz and also my predecessor as vicar general, to ask them to pass on the message of our kidnappers to President Duterte: withdraw the government troops from the city. If not, they will kill us hostages. One at a time.”
The government stood firm. However, Father Soganub was not killed. In the days that followed, the rebels changed their hiding place almost daily. And at each new house, more hostages joined the group. Finally, in June, the Maute group set up camp close to a mosque. By then, the number of hostages had grown to more than 120 persons, among them also women and children. The vast majority of the hostages, however, were young men who were forced to support the rebels over the next few weeks as they fought the army for control of the city. The hostages lived in constant fear of death: either from the weapons of the Maute group or from the hail of bombs from government forces.
On the day before their release, after weeks of fighting, the kidnappers were clearly losing ground to the government forces, Father Soganub quite distinctly recalled. “That evening, you could feel the great exhaustion and we could see from the lights that we were surrounded. Then I said to God and to myself, I have to try it now. God help me!” Then, a small miracle occurred: for 14 minutes, no shots were fired. The priest and one other hostage escaped on 17 September 2017.
In spite of the traumatic experience of captivity, he radiates peace and hope. “No one wants to experience something like that,” Father Teresito said. “During those months, I constantly lived with the certainty of my own death.” However, he also spoke of 116 days of constant prayer. “I was living my own lamentations. I cried out, ‘Why me, oh Lord? Why did You allow this to happen?’” However, in spite of the great sorrow, he also described a feeling of gratitude. “I expected to die and I did not understand how it was possible that I was surviving these ongoing gun battles.” Father Teresito does not consider himself a strong man, but said that he had learned that he could be strong with God. In faith. “To hear my heart screaming and still be able to say, ‘I know that You are here!’ That taught me humility and respect. Even in a situation like that.” The most senior priest in Marawi then talked about how the experience had given him a reason to learn again how to pray. And not only him and the other hostages, but the Philippine Church as a whole. “The Philippine Church always remembered us during the Prayers of Consecration. My family was approached by Protestant and even Muslim groups, who told them, ‘We are Protestants, we are Muslims, but we are praying for the safety of your brother.’” Father Soganub was particularly moved by this show of spiritual support; even before he was taken hostage, his duties included the promotion of interreligious dialogue in the prelature. “God used me to motivate others to prayer. The faith is what constitutes the Church, not the circumstances!”
A sentence that resonates, particularly in view of the fact that the cathedral of Marawi was so completely destroyed that the building could not be saved. However, even standing among the ruins of his sacred workplace, Father Soganub has not wavered, “We have to continue the dialogue between the religions side by side, as Muslims and as Christians. To sow the seeds of peace within us and work together as religions of peace for peace.”
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country; the island of Mindanao, however, on which the city of Marawi is located, has been settled by a Muslim minority. For many decades, the Muslims on Mindanao have been fighting to gain far-reaching autonomy. Marawi is the seat of a territorial prelature with about 35,000 Catholic members.
Thousands of inhabitants were forced to flee the city, most of whom still live in tents or crowded in with relatives. Already during the conflict, ACN provided emergency aid for the refugees. But now it is above all a matter of helping those traumatised by the conflict. And so ACN is supporting a project run by the diocese, helping some 200 men, women and children who were held prisoner for months and subjected to physical and spiritual torment. They include many women, and even young girls, who were raped by their captors. Help is given to Christians and Muslims alike. ACN helps with AUD $24,000 towards this project.
Another initiative organised by the local diocese is the „Youth for Peace“ project, whereby 184 Christian and Muslim students go visiting the refugee camps, where tens of thousands of people who fled the city are still living. The students help the refugees, regardless of their religion, and so strive to witness to the fact that peaceful coexistence is still possible, even after the terrible events of 2017. For the local Bishop, Edwin de la Peña, dialogue and the rebuilding of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims are an absolute priority. ACN is giving AUD $97,000 to help fund this project.