As the battle for the southern Philippines city of Marawi continues, a priest being held hostage by Islamist militants has appeared in a video, pleading for the President to “consider” hostages’ lives and stop bombing the city.
A spokesman for the Philippines army dismissed the video, which was released yesterday (30 May) and circulated via social media, as “propaganda”.
Fr. Teresito Suganob says in the video he is one of around 200 people being held hostage by the Islamists who stormed the city last week, setting fire to buildings including a cathedral and Christian college. The militants later killed nine Christians at a checkpoint; local residents identified them as Christians and said they had been pulled from a truck, had their hands bound and then their bodies riddled with bullets and left in a field.
Reports continue to emerge of Christians being specifically targeted, forced to recite Muslim prayers and used as human shields. Edwin de la Peña, bishop of Marawi, told Catholic news agency Fides he was “happy” Fr. Suganob was alive but “afraid of the fate of the hostages – about 200 civilians in all – now used as human shields”.
Yet there have also been reports of acts of solidarity from Muslims towards Christians, with Muslims reportedly giving Christians hijabs, hiding them in their homes and teaching them Muslim prayers.
The Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches called on its members “not to view the actions of the Maute Group as normative to Islam”.
“The ongoing peace talks of the Government with our Muslim brothers and sisters exemplify that there abound peace-loving adherents of the Islamic faith,” the Council added. “We appeal to the Maute Group to engage in peaceful dialogue, instead of using violent means. We also appeal to them as fellow human beings and citizens of this nation to immediately release all hostages unharmed, which include the parish priest Fr. Teresito ‘Chito’ Suganob.”
Although the Philippines is a majority-Christian country, the region of Mindanao, where Marawi is situated, has a strong Muslim presence and has long been home to violent Islamist groups seeking to create an independent Islamic state. Mindanao’s governor said the militants in Marawi are from three groups – Maute, Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
Over 100 people have been killed since the Islamists entered the city on 23 May, while, according to some reports, as many as half the city’s 200,000 inhabitants have fled.
“This is different from the Zamboanga Siege in 2013,” a local source explained. “That was a case of militant group Moro National Liberation Front wanting to make themselves known to the government, saying ‘We’re here!’ This time, the Maute Group, or ISIS – we can use the name interchangeably now – they’re attacking with the intention to occupy. Marawi is strategic. It’s central to Mindanao. If ISIS succeeds in making Marawi a caliphate, they can easily spread to other provinces.”
The source added that the locals, “though they’re used to explosions in the south, this is the first time they’ve experienced an armed conflict where they needed to evacuate. One Christian student [who fled the city’s university] says they’re traumatised by what’s happening. Merely the sound of a truck gives them jitters”.
“We are really in pain,” Bishop de la Peña told Fides. “We do not know what the army will do and how the terrorists will react. We have asked for the help of Muslim leaders in Marawi, our friends, while the whole Catholic population is gathered in prayer throughout the country.”