After several failed attempts, the prelate of Marawi was able to visit his desecrated cathedral this week, almost three months after the five-month conflict in the southern Philippine city ended. Bishop Edwin de la Pena entered the ruined city center and the remnants of the cathedral with representatives of the group Aid to the Church in Need
on Jan. 11. The prelate described the experience as "heartbreaking," adding that it was "a very emotional visit." Upon entering the ruined structure, the bishop knelt before the altar where, for 17 years, he celebrated Mass. He then stood in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary that was beheaded by Islamic State-inspired gunmen who attacked the city on May 23 last year. On the wall above the altar was an image of the crucified Jesus, disfigured by the gunmen, but which had been restored by government soldiers. Most of the city remains closed to civilians, many of whom remain in temporary shelters and evacuation centers in nearby towns and villages. "So many memories," said the bishop as he surveyed what remained of the church compound. "We were the ones who built this. Now, everything is destroyed, even the trees we planted are riddled with bullets," he said. After praying inside what used to be the cathedral, the prelate met volunteers, some of whom were Muslims
, and workers of the prelature's social action office. Catholic Church leaders in the city warned that terrorist gunmen are still going around villages in the region, looking for new recruits. "This is fertile ground for terrorist recruitment," said Reynaldo Barnido, executive director of the church aid program Duyog Marawi. He said he received reports that families on the outskirts of the city have been offered about US$1,000 and farm animals when they attend terrorist group "recruitment sessions." "[They] indoctrinate children and teenagers with extreme interpretations of Islam and eventually train them in military warfare," said Barnido. Bishop De la Pena said that although his priority is to attend to the needs of the community, he hopes that people will help in rebuilding the church.
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"I feel hopeful that people will help us rebuild ... but my priority is not the building but the needs of the community," said the prelate. After his visit, the prelate said he does not know how to start again
with all the destruction. "But as I talk to you, I know there’s a brighter tomorrow because before me now is the future of Marawi," he said, addressing the volunteers. He said that after the conflict, which displaced about 400,000 people and killed more than a thousand, "both Christians and Muslims have come to realize that they need each other to move forward."