Catholic bishop leads search for missing Marawi Christians

At least 293 people of different religions listed as missing in wake of Philippine conflict, but figure could be much higher
Catholic bishop leads search for missing Marawi Christians

A soldier stands guard on a bridge that links the city of Marawi to other areas in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao. (Photo by Mark Saludes) 


A number of Christians remain missing in Marawi a month after the Philippine military liberated the city from terrorist gunmen following a five-month siege that killed more than a thousand people.

The Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao reported that as of last week at least 293 people on a Red Cross list remained unaccounted for, although it was not clear how many were Christians.

The number of missing could be much higher, according to NGOs working in the region

The Management of the Dead and Missing committee of the NGO "Task Force Bangon Marawi" has no official list of missing persons.

"They do not want to come out and record their names officially," said Revie Sani, head of the committee, adding that families with missing relatives were "afraid to be tagged as relatives of an extremist."

"The challenge here is that people with missing relatives do not want to go to official lines. They look for their missing relatives using social media but they don’t seek us out for assistance," he said. 

Bishop Edwin de la Pena of Marawi, said he continues to try and locate missing Christians who supposedly fled when gunmen belonging to the so-called Maute Group attacked and occupied the city on May 23.

"As a pastor, it is incumbent on me to look for my own people, find them and their state of life, how they are coping," the prelate said during a media briefing in Manila on Nov. 21.

The bishop said the search was focused on locating the Christian population "because its very important that you establish, you build the community before building the structures."

"Our priority is to assist evacuees in the so called peace corridor," he said, adding that there were already volunteers scouring surrounding provinces for displaced Christian families from Marawi.

At the height of the fighting in June, the Philippine government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front agreed to establish a "peace corridor" to help civilians affected by the war in Marawi.

The so-called peace corridor covered several towns in the provinces of Lanao Del Sur, Cotabato and Davao in the southern region of Mindanao.

Bishop de la Pena said Catholic Church groups from Marawi are conducting "solidarity outreach" and peace-building rehabilitation programs in communities along the corridor.

He said the volunteers were also tending to the needs of rescued hostages freed by the military during the latter part of the conflict. "No other group is looking into the needs of the former hostages," said the bishop.

"Listening to [their] stories makes you feel ... sorry for them that they had to go through [the ordeal]," said Bishop de la Pena. "How they were able to get out of hell was nothing short of a miracle," he added.

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On Nov. 20, the Philippine military turned over to Bishop de la Pena, Father Teresito Soganub, the vicar general of Marawi who was taken hostage by the terrorists along with several church workers.

The bishop said the priest was "okay" and had gained weight during his two-month debriefing with the military after his release in September.

Father Soganub was attending a retreat this week in an undisclosed location.

The prelate said the priest had to "undergo a process" before he was given another parish assignment. "Probably it will take a long time," said Bishop Dela Pena. "We will cross that bridge when we get there," he added.

About 10,000 residents returned to their homes in Marawi this week after having stayed in temporary shelters and at evacuation sites outside the city for the past six months. Close to 400,000 people were displaced by the fighting.

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