By Paolo Affatato
Marawi (Agenzia Fides) - The pain and shock following the deadly attack will not stop the path of dialogue and building peaceful coexistence in the southern Philippines. The bomb attack in which four Catholic students were killed yesterday, December 3rd, during a Catholic Sunday
Eucharist in the Catholic chapel of Mindanao State University, leaves a trail of fear among the population, especially in the Catholic community. However, as local church representatives say, this will not lead to the voices that have been calling for peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims being nipped in the bud for years. The small community of around 40,000 Catholics in the Territorial Prelature of Marawi, the capital of the province of Lanao del Sur on the island of Mindanao in the south of the Philippines - the scene of the attack - is used to a "dialogue of life" that shapes everyday life: an everyday life , which takes place in the "Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao" (ARMM), a special status region that includes five Muslim-majority provinces in the Philippines and the South (Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi). Here, Christians - who normally form the majority in the 90% Catholic Filipino nation - live in the minority and see themselves as seeds of peace and hope in society. The ARMM is home to most of the approximately 6 million Filipino Muslims in the south of the archipelago, who have been demanding forms of autonomy and independence for decades, sometimes through armed rebellion, sometimes contaminated by groups that have chosen the path of terrorism, like Abu Syyaf and others.
"The attack has caused disbelief, emotion and great pain in everyone, Christians and Muslims," said Bishop Edwin Angot de la Peña, head of the Marawi Territorial Prelature, to Fides. "They hit us right in the heart, during the Eucharist, the climax of our faith. There is much fear now, but faith accompanies us and gives us support. Even in this time of distress, we feel the presence of the Lord," he says. Students, lecturers, university employees and other believers took part in the service in the sports hall. The victims were four Catholic students and university pastoral volunteers, while 54 people were injured, seven of whom are still in critical condition in hospital, the bishop reported. According to initial reports, "local groups linked to the Islamic State acted in revenge after the recent clashes between the army and the militants. They sought publicity and slaughtered innocent people. This is terrible. This attack disturbed Mindanao Week of Peace, a week of action in which the desire for peace is celebrated throughout the island of Mindanao and witnessed with public demonstrations, dialogue meetings and prayers," reports Bishop Edwin de la Peña. "Of course people are afraid now, but our life of faith continues. We are affected during Advent and rely in a special way on the Virgin Mary. Out of caution, there will be no usual processions on the upcoming Feast of the Immaculate Conception, on December 8th "the statue of the Virgin will be carried through the streets of cities and parishes, and people will put lights and candles on window sills and windows and pray the rosary at home".
In this tragic situation, the Bishop points to "the broad and rapid solidarity and closeness that we have received from the local Muslim communities. Even the first responders who transported the wounded to the hospital and the doctors themselves are all people of Muslim faith and have provided concrete assistance
and dedicated themselves to the wounded. Others supported the families of the victims. These gestures give us hope and tell us that this brutal and senseless violence will not have the last word, it will not succeed in destroying the good works built over many years".
The Bishop, who will soon meet with other bishops of the region to decide what he wants to do, especially during Advent and Christmas, says he "very much appreciates the Pope's words of closeness that we have on our channels published and sent to all communities and believers. The fact that Pope Francis is close to us and prays for us is a source of great comfort and great hope," he says, expressing his deep gratitude.
Among those involved in interreligious dialogue in the southern Philippines is Father Sebastiano D'Ambra, PIME missionary (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions), and initiator of the movement for Islamic-Christian dialogue "Silsilah" in the city of Zamboanga, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year (1984-2024). He emphasizes to Fides: "We celebrated the Mindanao Week of Action for Peace, which was full of testimonies and fruitful experiences of Islamic-Christian dialogue. This attack disrupts this atmosphere and causes immeasurable suffering, but it urges us not to abandon this commitment, but on the contrary, to continue it with greater conviction and intensity. Our experience with “Silsilah” aims to sow and grow a culture and a mentality of peace. We have experienced tragic moments that began with the assassination of church leaders such as Benjamin David de Jesus, the Vicar Apostolic of Jolo, who was murdered in 1997, and numerous other missionaries. The presence of these martyrs continues to be a blessing and an encouragement to the sometimes difficult path to peace in Mindanao. We will not be discouraged by those who undertake this "Today we have so many Muslim friends, brothers and sisters who walk side by side with us". (Agenzia Fides, 4/12/2023)