Update on Situation in Mindanao

By Columban Fr. Vincent Busch, May 27, 2017

I’m writing this memo and updating it as necessary as the violent situation evolves or devolves in Mindanao.  This on-going account will try to provide some context to what is happening and how it touches the Church people I know and the Subanens whom I work with. Marawi city is only 30 miles away from my residence in Ozamiz City, but to get there I would need to ferry across a bay and then travel a circuitous route first on a coastline road to Iligan Cityand then up a winding road to the highlands where Marawi City lies next to lake Lanao.  Lake Lanao is the source of hydroelectric power for much of Mindanao.   Marawi is populated primarily by Maranao Muslims. 

The violence began early afternoon on Tuesday, May 23, when a joint operation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police was launched in Marawi City to capture terrorist leader Isnilon Hapilon.  Hapilon is believed to be an Islamic State’s (ISIS) leader in Southeast Asia. As the Philippine forces were closing in on the place where they thought Hapilon was hiding a firefight between government troops and the Maute group erupted.  Later that same afternoon (May 23), while Fr. Teresito (Chito) Suganob of St. Mary’s Cathedral and few parishioners were celebrating Mass on the eve of their fiesta day, Maute fighters occupied the parish buildings and kidnapped them.  Later, that night the cathedral was burnt to the ground.  Fr. Chito and the parishioners are still being held hostage. Meanwhile nearby buildings belonging to Dansalan College, run by the United Church of Christ, were burnt and some of its teachers were abducted.  

The Catholic Bishops of Mindanao in a statement dated May 26, 2017, said:

“We condemn the terrorist acts that have caused the loss of many innocent lives, the burning of homes, public buildings, including a Protestant school dormitory and a Catholic Cathedral. We condemn the unconscionable kidnapping of teachers and church personnel. We pray for the safety of all the kidnapped, of Fr. Teresito Suganob and his companions. We appeal to the hostage takers to release all of them unharmed.”

 "In the strongest terms we condemn terrorism in its various forms. It is an ideology that is totally against the tenets of any religion of peace. Especially so when terrorism is perpetrated while our Muslim brothers and sisters are preparing for the holy month of Ramadhan. Terrorism distorts and falsifies the true meaning of any religion. It destroys harmonious relationships among peoples of different faiths. It creates a world of suspicion and prejudice, of hatred and hostility.”

The Subanen Crafters have many relatives working in Marawi.  Since the violence started on May 23 they have tried to keep in cell-phone contact with their family members.  About 30 of their cousins and siblings, including some children, are in hiding in a building owned by a former mayor of Marawi.  On May 26, the Maute discovered their hiding place and destroyed the sim cards from their cell phones.  Jay Gawason, the cousin of Subanen crafters Mercy and Vangie Gawason, was able to hide his cell phone. When it was safe, Marie Gawason Libutlibut - a cousin of Jay - opened Jay's hidden phone and in a hushed voice she called her cousin Vangie who is here with us in Ozamiz.  This call happened around at 1:55 PM May 26.  It was through that phone call that we learned that the Maute group had discovered their hiding place and had disabled their cell phones.  That hushed message from Marie Gawason Libulibut was the last contact we have had with the now captured Subanens.  We know from that phone call that they have no food and water and are very afraid.  The fighting could be heard all around them. Now it is Saturday Morning May 27 and there is no word as to the welfare of the Subanens as well as the captured parishioners and their parish priest. 

Meanwhile we are carrying on as best we can.  It is a meaningful coincidence that the Christmas cards we are now crafting depict Mary and Joseph rushing to pack up their belongings so that they can quickly escape the approaching violence of Herod's armed men.  Many people in Marawi are trying to do the same, if they can.  It is a poignant scene here as the Subanens craft cards that show the frightened parents of Jesus while they listen to radio reports about Marawi and worry about their frightened family members trapped there. 

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