Catholic lay ministers sprinkle ash on the head of a faithful during Ash Wednesday Mass at a church in Manila on Feb. 17, marking the start of the Lenten season. (Photo: Jam Sta Rosa/AFP)
Church officials in the Philippines have condemned recent attacks on several chapels in Basilan province in the Mindanao region during which religious items were desecrated.
The attacks in the Muslim-majority region took place just before Catholic worshippers at St. Isidore and Immaculate Conception chapels in Lamitan City were about to celebrate Ash Wednesday on Feb. 17.
They were shocked to see statues of the chapels’ patron saints beheaded and other religious items damaged.
In a homily during Mass on Feb. 21, Bishop Leo Dalmao of Basilan said two men also tried to vandalize a chapel the night before Ash Wednesday in a nearby village but were foiled by local churchgoers.
“[They] attempted to steal statues. Fortunately, they were stopped by local people and they fled on two motorbikes,” Bishop Dalma said.
“The Prelature of Isabela de Basilan condemns such disgraceful actions. We will not allow ourselves to be dictated by the agenda of these people and we do not want to dignify their actions by giving them and their actions undue attention and publicity,” he said.
The prelate said he could not think of any motive for the attacks but to “sow fear and confusion” among Catholics and Muslims in the Mindanao region.
“I remind everyone to be vigilant and not allow these bad elements to succeed in sowing division and hatred among us. Take care of places of worship and watch over them” Bishop Dalmao said.
He also warned people not to jump to conclusions in determining who was responsible for the attacks.
“I urge our brothers and sisters in the prelature to refrain from judging or engaging in stereotypical thinking and prejudice,” Bishop Damlao said.
“It is easier to take refuge in past biases and prejudices rather than read the present with a new perspective. It is my hope that we will not allow ourselves to give in to the temptation of the former.”
The bishop was referring to more turbulent times when armed Muslim groups mounted a 50-year insurgency in which up to 120,000 people were killed to seek greater autonomy in the region.
A deal was reached in 2014 that resulted in the people of Mindanao voting for a new governing body in 2019 giving the region greater self-rule.
“Catholics here are shocked and uneasy. We don’t have any idea who was behind this,” Basilan Diocese spokesman Father Edwin Rivero told Radio Veritas.
He said those responsible were likely trying to disrupt peace and order to create divisions between Christians and Muslims in the region.
Retired Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes said Catholics and Muslims must remain focused in their quest for peace.
“Do not let this event divide Christians and Muslims. Any form of desecration whether in Islam or in the Catholic Church is so wrong. Respect is essential in every religion,” Bishop Bastes told UCA News.