(World Watch Monitor) UPDATE (25 May): Nine Christian civilians were reportedly shot dead at a militant-run checkpoint in the besieged city of Marawi in the southern Philippines on Tuesday (23 May).
Filipino news site GMA News Online – one of the biggest news and public affairs networks in the country – reported that local residents identified the nine as Christians, saying they had been pulled from a truck, had their hands bound and then their bodies riddled with bullets and left in a field.
This latest update comes as a Catholic priest and 13 other Christians are still reportedly being held by the Islamists, who have laid siege to the city, setting fire to buildings including a cathedral and Protestant-run college, and erecting the black flags of ISIS.
Reuters reports that the militants have been using the hostages as human shields, and have contacted cardinals, threatening to execute them unless government troops withdraw.
The governor of the Mindanao region, where Marawi is situated, said the rebels are from three extremist groups – Maute, Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to crush them, saying: “Anyone now holding a gun, confronting government with violence, my orders are spare no-one, let us solve the problems of Mindanao once and for all.
“If I think you should die, you will die. If you fight us, you will die. If there’s an open defiance, you will die, and if it means many people dying, so be it. That’s how it is.”
He added: “I made a projection, not a prediction, that one of these days the hardest things to deal with would be the arrival of ISIS. The government must put an end to this. I cannot gamble with ISIS because they are everywhere.”
Original article (24 May):
Chaos in the Philippines as Islamist group storms city, abducts Christians and sets church on fire
A Catholic priest and 13 other Christians were taken hostage, while a cathedral and Protestant-run college were among the buildings set on fire, when an extremist group which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State descended upon the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines yesterday (23 May).
Three fires broke out, as around 100 armed members of the Maute group fired off their weapons, beheaded a police chief and erected the black flags of ISIS.
The abducted priest was identified as Fr. Teresito Suganob, vicar-general of the prelature of Marawi, by a local bishop, Edwin De la Peña, who told the Catholic news agency Fides: “Today is the feast of our Prelature, the feast of ‘Mary, help of Christians’. The faithful were in church to pray on the last day of the novena. The terrorists broke into St Mary’s Cathedral, took the hostages and led them to an unknown location. They entered the bishop’s residence and kidnapped [Fr. Suganob]. Then they set fire to the cathedral and the bishop’s residence. Everything is destroyed. We are dismayed.
“The terrorists have occupied the city. People are terrified and locked in the house. We are waiting for the army’s reaction. The important thing is to regain the city with the least possible bloodshed. Hostages have not been mentioned. We have activated our channels, the Church and Islamic leaders, and we hope to be able to negotiate soon so they are released safe and sound.
“…We also appeal to Pope Francis to pray for us and to ask the terrorists to release the hostages in the name of our common humanity. Violence and hatred lead only to destruction: we ask the faithful all over the world to pray together with us for peace.”
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in the Philippines, added that Fr. Suganob was “not a combatant. He was not bearing arms. He was a threat to none. His capture and that of his companions violates every norm of civilised conflict.”
Meanwhile, three of the buildings belonging to Dansalan College, which was established by the Protestant United Church of Christ, were burnt down yesterday. On its website, the college says it espouses the importance of interfaith relationship, as 95% of its students are Muslim, while 80% of its staff are Christian.
Reports say a hospital, the city’s jail, and several other establishments were also taken over by the gunmen.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has reacted by cutting short a visit to Russia and imposing 60 days of martial law across the Mindanao region, where Marawi is situated. The 27 provinces and 33 cities in Mindanao make up roughly a third of the whole country.
Martial law gives more power to the military, including its ability to detain people for long periods without charge.
It is only the second time martial law has been imposed in the Philippines since the fall of former president Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Human rights groups and religious leaders criticised the president’s decision, calling it “uncalled for” and warning that it would “inevitably result in intensified military operations, including aerial strikes, which can kill and affect hundreds of civilians”.
Sixty days is the maximum period allowed for martial law under the Philippines’ Constitution, but President Duterte said in a video released by the government that “if it would take a year to [overcome the insurgents], then we’ll do it”.
After his return home today (24 May), Mr. Duterte said at a press briefing: “If I think that the ISIS has already taken foothold also in Luzon, and terrorism is not really far behind, I might declare martial law throughout the country to protect the people.”
Although the Philippines is a majority-Christian country, the region of Mindanao has a strong Muslim presence and is home to the Maute group, which stems from a violent Islamist movement called the Moro National Liberation Front, which sought independence for decades, hoping to create an independent Islamic state.
“On the ground, the people are asking for prayers,” a local source told World Watch Monitor. “The residents are threatened. They say homes are being trespassed, and that women not in hijabs are being taken away. The black flags are perched on top of a police car and a hospital. Social media screams with pleas for help, screenshots of texts of relatives on lockdown. One post says people must recite the shahada [Islamic profession of faith] when asked, else be killed.
“The fighting is said to spring from a hunt for Isnilon Hapilon, local Abu Sayaff leader tagged as the head of ISIS in the Philippines. Hapilon has not been caught.
“The military says things are in control now, and denies that ISIS was involved, saying the local Maute group was wreaking havoc only to get foreign attention.”
Jihadists fighting in the name of the Islamic State group (ISIS) are escalating attacks in the southern Philippines.
Jihadists fighting in the name of the Islamic State group (ISIS) are escalating attacks in the southern Philippines.
“Their influence is growing stronger and it is expanding,” Rodolfo Mendoza, a senior analyst at the Manila-based Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research told AFP, referring to IS.
He said the various local groups that had pledged allegiance to IS were “planning big operations, like bombings, attacks or assassinations”.
Such violence has plagued large areas of the southern Philippines for decades, as Muslim rebels have fought a separatist insurgency that has claimed 120,000 lives.
The violence has left the region one of the poorest in the Philippines, while allowing warlords and extortion gangs to flourish. Many of the predominantly Catholic Philippines’ Muslim minority live in the south. Read More
Despite the rain, this is a church in the Philippines is hungry for the Word of God. God bless these dear brothers and sisters! Please keep them in your prayers.
Christians in a predominantly Muslim part of the mainly Catholic Philippines are targets of extremist Islamist groups and face persecution similar to their fellow believers in the Middle East, says a missionary priest.
“The situation is a worrying one,” said Father Sebastiano D’Ambra in a interview with Aid to the Church in Need, referring to the anti-Christian attacks that took place on Christmas Day in the south of Mindanao.
In an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Father Sebastiano D’Ambra highlighted fears of radicalization in parts of the Philippines after 14 people were killed during attacks on Christmas Day.
The attack included a grenade being thrown at a chapel.
“It is difficult to establish for certain whether the violence was directed specifically against Christians, even though everything points to the fact that this was the case.
“Without doubt our brothers and sisters in the faith are one of the targets of these fundamentalist groups,” said D’Ambra who belongs to the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (P.I.M.E.) congregation.
“In some areas of Mindanao we are experiencing exactly the same thing as is happening in Iraq,” said the Italian priest who has been in the Philippines nearly 50 years and is an experienced missionary. Read More
(Voice of the Persecuted) 7 Christian farmers were killed during a series of attacks by Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) on Christmas Eve.
Christmas attacks by Muslim rebels in Christian villages in the southern Philippines left at least 14 people dead and may have been partly influenced by the notoriety of the Islamic State group, officials said Saturday. The raids raised tensions of those in the Christians communities. One report claimed people have become so scared some go to the local gymnasium to sleep at night.
Manila Bulletin reported more attacks by the BIFF Bunayog could not rule out. BIFF continues to seek a separate Islamic state and remains opposed to a government-MILF effort to create a Muslim autonomous area in Mindanao as part of a peace agreement. The group split from main Muslim rebel group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)in 2008 after the MILF opened a peace process with the government.
Contacting a military spokesperson, USA Today spoke with Capt. Joan Petinglay by phone. About 200 rebels took part in at least eight attacks on Thursday and Friday, She said the military learned about the impending attacks and secured towns and villages and warned villagers not to venture out, preventing a larger number of casualties.
“We learned that the BIFF had plans to attack civilians and our detachments so we went on heightened alert even before Christmas,” Petinglay said. “That prevented the rebels from attacking villages and inflicting more casualties.”
Despite warnings from the military, five farmers went to their farms [on] Thursday to spray insecticide on their crops in Maguindanao province and were captured and gunned down by the rebels, she said.
In a nearby village in Esperanza town in Sultan Kudarat province, rebels fleeing from army troops took a family hostage on Thursday, freeing a mother and her child but killing three men. A village official was also gunned down by the militants late Thursday in a village in North Cotabato province.
Villagers in one area hid in a Roman Catholic church after word of the rebel assaults spread, Petinglay said.
The group had been seen meeting in numbers beyond their usual size. The motive for their new attacks on Christian communities was not known. A BIFF spokesman earlier confirmed they were behind the raids, but had said it was over a land dispute.
The BIFF seeks a separate Islamic state and establish Sharia law. The group opposes the government-MILF effort to create a Muslim autonomous area in Mindanao as part of a peace agreement. The latest attacks were the most brazen by the group to date.
Last year, the BIFF shared a video where one of its leaders pledged support for the Islamic State, the jihadists that controls a large territory in Iraq and Syria with a goal to establish an Islamic Caliphate.
Please pray for our brothers and sisters in the Philippines.
Philippines (Morning Star News) – Christians on the Philippine island of Mindanao believe Maoist rebels are responsible for killing a Baptist pastor and his adult son near a southern town on Nov. 27.
A friend of the pastor in Mindanao told Morning Star News that area Christians believe insurgents with the New People’s Army (NPA), armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, were responsible for shooting Pastor Feliciano “Cris” Lasawang, 50, and his 24-year-old son Darwin as they bathed in the Culaman River north of Jose Abad Santos, Davao del Sur Province, at 6 a.m.
Pastor Lasawang was shot three times in the body, and his son once in the face, according to relatives. The two men died at the site. They had conducted baptisms in the same river where they died, according to U.S.-based Christian Aid Mission, which assists native ministries around the world.
The pastor’s friend, whose name is withheld for security reasons, said area Christians suspect NPA rebels because the guerrillas believe church growth dampens insurgent recruitment efforts, and the pastor had received reports that the communist militants were monitoring his movements.
“Pastor Cris had received intelligence reports that the NPA guerillas were eyeing him as he was going around to communities telling NPA sympathizers that armed struggle was not the solution,” he told Morning Star News.
The friend, who trained the church leader, said Pastor Lasawang had notified him of a strong presence of NPA guerillas in the area. Pastor Lasawang had often advised the friend not to visit him due to heavy NPA activity. On one occasion the NPA launched an attack that killed nearly a dozen Philippine Army troops, with the rebels carrying weapons just a few kilometers from the church, the pastor told him.
The NPA, formed in 1969, aims to overthrow the Philippine government and establish communism. It is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
Pastor Lasawang is survived by his wife and seven other children, the youngest 13 years old. He put his faith in Christ in 2007 after observing positive change in a cousin who had become a Christian. In 2013, he dedicated himself to pastoring and planted a Baptist church in Jose Abad Santos in Davao del Sur (technically Davao Occidental Province, but still governed by Davao del Sur until elections in 2016).
The church, where 300 people attend worship service weekly at a building with a capacity of 150, remains without a pastor, and NPA guerillas continue to be a threat, sources said. Members of the congregation are volunteering to exhort the gathering on Sundays.
Despite opposition in the area from both communist and Islamic insurgent groups, another house church has opened in a nearby village to meet the needs of a growing number of people interested in Bible study, the pastor’s friend said.
“The ministry in Jose Abad town will continue despite the absence of a full-time minister there,” he said.
Christian communities in the southern Philippines are vulnerable to sporadic rebel attacks as a result of failed peace talks between the national government and numerous separatist groups. The Philippines, with an estimated 100 million people, will choose a new president in May, and many Christians in the region hope that the next president will address the complex problems of insurgencies in Mindanao.
Rolly Pelinggon, former vice president of the Philippine Student Alliance Lay Movement (PSALM), told Morning Star News that the next president of the Philippines should have peace negotiators from the southern Philippines. Most peace negotiations with the rebels fail, Pelinggon said, because the designated peace negotiators are based in Manila and do not have an in-depth understanding of the regional complexities.
The pastor’s friend had not been able to visit the church for two years because of the rebel presence, but he received permission to do so on Oct. 27, he said. According to Christian Aid, he was able to meet briefly with Pastor Lasawang and discuss how to manage the increased attendance at the church and how to continue evangelistic outreach and discipleship.
“We both had lively plans,” he told Christian Aid, “full of hopes, accelerating desires to serve the Servant King, not knowing in God’s plan that that would be our last fellowship here on earth.”
ZAMBOANGA: On Sunday five people were injured when men on a motorcycle hurled a grenade into a Roman Catholic church in the troubled southern Philippines in a city known for Muslim rebel activity, officials said.
They threw the grenade into the church in a suburb of the city of Zamboanga as elderly members were meeting, officials said.
Four senior citizens and one passer-by were injured.
“It (the motive) is unlikely to be personal. What can they get from these senior citizens? Perhaps this is a message,” he told reporters.
The local police chief, Chief Inspector Felixberto Martinez, said they were pursuing all possible leads but could not give a motive for the attack.
Philippines: Faith sustained them through their terrifying capture by Abu Sayyaf guerillas
Basilan in the southern Philippines province of Mindanao has been called an island paradise, rich in resources and natural beauty.
For decades, however, it has been a hub of insurgent activity by various factions of extremist Islamic groups that have waged a campaign of terror on local communities and foreign visitors.
Kidnappings are common, and the risk of violence for anyone working in the area remains high.
Such was the case for two Filipino volunteer teachers working with a Claretian mission school that provides free education to the Badjau, or Sea Gypsy, community in the village of Maluso.
Frederick Banut, 24, and Cherben Masong, 25, were sitting down to dinner on September 4 with two young students and a visiting mother in a small oceanside hut that serves as the community’s literacy center, when they heard a motor boat approaching.
The woman opened the door to inquire after the visitors and was confronted by more than a dozen men dressed in police uniforms with shoulder-length hair and long beards.
They pushed their way into the hut and barked out, “where is the priest?” in Tausog, the language of neighboring Sulu province.
“There are no priests here,” said Frederick, holding out his wrists for the handcuffs that quickly appeared.
The men demanded that they accompany them to headquarters and bundled the volunteers into a Malaysian boat known as a jungkung.
“It was not an arrest. It was a kidnapping,” Cherben said. “I kept asking where they would take us, but they just pushed us into the boat.” It soon became apparent, he added, that these men were not police officers but members of Abu Sayyaf, an extremist Islamic group notorious for high profile kidnappings in the southern Philippines.
“I thought I was going to die. One of the Abu Sayyaf men wanted to get hold of the cross that hangs around my neck. I removed it and threw it into the water,” Frederick said.
The Claretians, a Spanish missionary order, have been targets of the militants before. In 2000, Abu Sayyaf members killed Claretian priest Father Rhoel Gallardo at the end of a six-week hostage crisis that involved four teachers and 22 students of Claret School in Tumahubong town in Basilan.
The Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda affiliated group, is believed to be holding at least 10 foreign nationals and even more Filipino hostages in their strongholds in Sulu and Basilan.
After a six-hour journey, the two teachers disembarked at the village of Talipao in Sulu province, where they were handed over to another group of armed men.
Wet, hungry and frightened, the teachers were interrogated by their captors.
“We were threatened. We were asked about our work. They wanted to know if we were rich and how much our families could pay for our freedom,” Cherben said.
The next morning, the captors went to work on Frederick. They first tried to convince him to convert to Islam and become a mujahidin (Islamic warrior).
“They wanted me to marry a mujahidat, or woman fighter,” Frederick said.
Next, they began beating him.
“I told them to just kill me, but that I would not abandon my faith.”
Frederick and Cherben were held for 43 days before their freedom was successfully negotiated on October 18. Authorities have not divulged any details of the negotiations that led to their release.
Speaking to ucanews.com shortly after their return, the teachers were grateful to God for their freedom.
“I think I still have a lot of things to do for Him,” Frederick said, adding that he would continue working for the Church and for the benefit of the Sea Gypsies of Basilan.
“Threats to our lives are normal, especially if we are serious about being followers of Christ,” Frederick said.
Cherben’s experience in captivity was slightly different.
He could not help but smile when he recalled how the wife of the commander in whose home he was forced to live got jealous of his presence there.
“She was pregnant and was asking her husband to get something for her, but the commander ignored her. She got mad and attacked him,” Cherben said.
“She told her husband to go and live with me because it seemed like the husband preferred to be with me,” he recalled.
The commander subsequently pulled out his gun and fired into the ground.
“I ran away. I did not want to be in the middle of a marital spat,” Cherben said with a smile.
Friends and relatives have advised the two volunteer teachers to leave Basilan, but they have both refused.
“I have learned to love my work. The challenge and the adventure is here,” said Cherben. “Aside from that, I have learned to love the Badjau people.”
The Badjau (also spelled Bajau) are an indigenous ethnic group of maritime Southeast Asia. They continue to live a seaborne lifestyle, making use of small wooden sailing vessels for their homes, or living along the coastal areas of the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines.
Frederick says he will never forget his experience in captivity, and that he even prays for his captors “so that they will be enlightened because they do not know what they are doing”.
Local residents in Zamboanga told ucanews.com that the boat that spirited away Frederick and Cherben to Sulu was part of a flotilla that brought some 300 Moro National Liberation Front rebels during a failed attempt to seize the city on September 9.
The attack resulted in the deaths of at least 200 people, the displacement of about 120,000 others, and the total destruction of an estimated 10,000 homes.
ZAMBOANGA CITY (BosNewsLife)– Hundreds of residents, including many Christians, remained trapped or were held hostage as fighting intensified in the Southern Philippines Saturday, September 14, between government forces and Muslim separatists in suburbs of Zamboanga city.
More than 50 people have died since the siege began Monday, September 9, shattering recent years of relative calm in Zamboanga city, a heavily Christian region 860 kilometers (540 miles) south of Manila, the capital.
There remained concern that rebels were holding hundreds of local residents as human shields. A local church has been involved in tending to at least some of the 70 people who were wounded in the clashes, Christians said.
Yet a Catholic priest caught up in the siege was freed Friday, September 12, leaving behind terrified hostages.
“Whenever the military attacked, the rebels would force us to become their human shield,” the priest, Michael Ufana said in comments aired by Vatican Radio. “Then, after the firefight they would lock us up again in detention.”
Philippine troops stepped up efforts to try to force rebels from buildings they seized in Zamboanga city, but the insurgents are well armed.
Government officials say those trapped in two schools are running short of food. An estimated 60,000 residents have fled, and hundreds of buildings are now destroyed.
Philippines Benigno Aquino III said in a statement that the “prime objective is to save lives,” but he warned his government may use force to end the standoff.
The troubles began Monday, September 9, when some 200 Muslim rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), entered the port city and took hostages.
The attacks by MNLF were seen by observers as an attempt to scupper peace talks between another militant group and the government.
MNLF has been fighting for an Islamic state for Muslim Moro, who comprise the largest non-Christian group in the Philippines, at around 10 percent of a total 97 million Filipinos.
A ceasefire had been due on Saturday, September 14, after telephone talks between Philippine Vice-President Jejomar Binay and the head of a faction of the MNLF, Nur Misuari.
However it remained unclear whether all the fighters answer to that one group with local reports suggesting the force appears to be a coalition of Islamists and independence seekers in this mainly Catholic nation.
The clashes raised questions about the strength of a peace deal agreed last October with the MNLF, to end four decades of conflict that killed 120,000 people and displaced two million. (With additional reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos)