'Dialogue of life and faith' amid Mindanao battle

Conflict in Marawi has made 'both Christians and Muslims victims'
'Dialogue of life and faith' amid Mindanao battle

 Muslim and Christian volunteers prepare meals for Muslim families who fled fighting in Marawi City. (Photo by Mark Saludes) 

Bishop Edwin de la Pena of Marawi was set to go to the city on May 23, but a "fiesta" in a village that was supposed to start at 8:30am started one hour late. 

There was a wedding and a baptism to attend to, and by the time he finished, it was late.

Still, Bishop Dela Pena, 63, a member of the Mission Society of the Philippines, wanted to go to the cathedral as the church there was celebrating a feast the next day.

As he was preparing to leave, the prelate received a frantic call from his vicar general, Father Teresito Soganub, who also serves as acting rector of the cathedral, and chaplain at the state university there.

The priest told his bishop not to proceed because "there's war here."

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"Do not come over. It's likely we won't be able to celebrate our fiesta," the priest told the bishop.  

Marawi was set to celebrate the feast of "Mary, Help of Christians," the patron of the Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora, also known as St. Mary's Church.

There were people at the church that afternoon. They were preparing for the next day, cleaning, decorating, and cooking. It was the last day of the "novena," a nine-day prayer before the feast day.

By nightfall, the church would be in flames. The priest and several church workers became hostages.


'Dialogue of life and faith'

Marawi, the country's lone Islamic City, has 96 villages and a population of 201,785 based on a 2015 census. 

It is the most populous area in the five-province, two-city Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The daytime population is even more. Marawi is the trading center of Lanao del Sur province.

The Prelature of Marawi was established in 1976 with the late Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud as its first prelate. The prelature covers the city of Marawi and the towns of Malabang and Balabagan.

It was in this Islamic city where the seeds of interfaith dialogue — the "dialogue of life and faith" — were planted, nourished, and transplanted to other dioceses, archdioceses, and vicariates in Mindanao, the rest of the Philippines, and even beyond.

The prelature was set up, in accordance with Pope Paul VI's mandate, for "dialogue of life and faith" with Muslims, "not for conversion" of Muslims.

It was under Bishop Tudtud when Duyog Ramadan, a Christian initiative to "accompany" their Muslim brothers and sisters during the month-long Ramadan, began.


Frontliner in interfaith dialogue

Ordained a priest in 1995, Father Soganub, or "Father Chito" to friends, has been very active in inter-religious dialogue.

Bishop De la Pena described the priest as the prelature's "frontliner in interfaith dialogue."

Father Chito has linked with NGOs, both Christian and Muslim, "whose aims are community development and interfaith dialogue."

A "plea for the release" of the priest posted on social media by his friends shows how people love the priest.

He was not the first religious leader abducted in Marawi.

In the late 1980s, ten Carmelite nuns and two priests, including Irish Columban missionary Monsignor Desmond Hartford who served as apostolic administrator of the prelature were kidnapped.

In 1997, Hartford was again abducted and held for two weeks by disgruntled members of the Moro National Liberation Front.

Like in previous kidnappings, Muslims helped negotiate his release.


What to expect after the 'war'

Like most residents of Marawi, Bishop De la Pena is afraid that he won't be able to recognize Marawi when the "war" is over.

He wonders if he will still recognize the cathedral compound or if his house still stands.

A video circulated on social media shows terrorist fighters burning the church on May 23.

The prelate has called on the Ranao Christian-Muslim Volunteers to help in relief efforts. He said the group is helping even those who are not in evacuation centers.

Muslim volunteers are at the forefront of the relief efforts "so we do not step on the sensitivities of Muslims," said the bishop.

Bishop De la Pena said expects that the situation will be "more challenging" for the prelature when the "war" is over.

He remains optimistic though that the church can overcome the challenges because of the "too many gains on the part of us Christians who engage in dialogue with Muslims and on the part of the Muslims who are our partners."

"We have come to the conclusion that Mindanao belongs to us, both of us, that we have to learn to live together in peace," said the prelate. "This is ours. Let us work harder for this. Let us nurture it," he added.

Bishop De la Pena said that with "this bitter experience that made both Christians and Muslims victims" there is more reason to continue interfaith dialogue.

"Never again will we allow guns to do the talking. Dialogue is the only viable option to resolve conflicts among us," he said.

This is a shortened version of Carolyn Arguillas' report published by the independent Mindanao news site Mindanews.

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