Soldiers examine the entrance to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the southern Philippine town of Jolo after twin explosions killed at least 20 people and injured about 100 others on Jan. 27. (Photo courtesy of the Philippine military's Western Mindanao Command)
Church leaders condemned bomb explosions that killed at least 20 people and injured about 100 others inside a Catholic church in the southern Philippines on Jan. 27, branding the attack a “heinous and evil” act of terrorism.
The so-called Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the bombing, which occurred during Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the town of Jolo, Sulu province.
The group, which often claims responsibility for acts of terrorism, issued a statement claiming two suicide bombers detonated explosive belts inside the church and near its entrance.
The first blast left bodies strewn on the floor amid destroyed pews.
A second explosion near the entrance shortly after killed at least five soldiers trying to help the wounded.
The attack, one of the deadliest in recent years in Mindanao, occurred less than a week after a plebiscite was held on expanding and strengthening an existing Muslim autonomous region in the area.
The bishops' conference condemned the attack, calling it an "act of terrorism."
The prelates called on Christians "to join hands with all peace-loving Muslim and indigenous communities in combating violent extremism."
"We condole with the families of the soldiers and civilians killed by the explosions," said Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, the conference president.
Pope Francis also expressed his sorrow over the attack.
"I raise my prayers for the dead and wounded," said the pope from Panama where he was attending the World Youth Day celebration.
"May the Lord, prince of peace, convert the hearts of the violent and give the inhabitants of that region a peaceful coexistence," added the pope.
Church pews are scattered inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the southern Philippine town of Jolo after twin explosions killed at least 20 people and injured about 100 others on Jan. 27. (Photo courtesy of the Philippine military's Western Mindanao Command)
Dying for their faith
Father Romeo Saniel, apostolic administrator of Jolo, said those who perished "died for their Christian faith."
"They bravely stayed in Jolo in spite of the threats and insecurities," said the priest.
"No words can describe the sorrow and pain that we feel these days," he added.
In a joint statement, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo and Archbishop Angelito Lampon of Cotabato, described the bombing as "the most heinous desecration of a sacred place."
Cardinal Quevedo once served as parish priest of Jolo while Archbishop Lampon was until recently the prelate of the Vicariate of Jolo.
"As former religious leaders of Jolo we totally condemn the criminal bombing of Jolo Cathedral," read the statement.
The attack "on a sacred day and at a sacred moment of worship" was "the action of evil people with utter disregard for the sacredness of human life and of human dignity," they said.
They appealed to the security forces to swiftly bring perpetrators to justice.
The predominantly Muslim province of Sulu has long been a hotbed of groups claiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda terrorist networks.
Soldiers clear the area following the twin blasts at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the southern Philippine town of Jolo. (Photo courtesy of the Philippine military's Western Mindanao Command)
Authorities said the motive was in "retaliation" for the death of a leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group last year.
Military spokesman, Lt. Col. Gerry Besana, said investigators had recovered CCTV footage of the bombers just before the attack.
According to Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor, Mujiv Hataman, only Abu Sayyaf had the means to carry out the attack.
"It was most likely their handiwork," he told ucanews.com.
Hataman said he could not see a link between the attack and the recent plebiscite.
"Abu Sayyaf or the [Islamic State] have not stated their position on the [Bangsamoro Organic Law] whether they are for or against it," the governor said.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which entered into a peace deal with the government in 2014, said it would conduct its own investigation.
Hadji Murad Ibrahim, the group’s chairman, said the attack was "definitely not connected to the plebiscite."
He said the proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law "is for peace and it will protect not only the rights of [Muslims] but also non-Bangsamoro people like Christians."
"We are not dividing people. In fact we are uniting Muslim and Christian people," he said.
The Philippine government vowed to hunt down the perpetrators.
"We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime," President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo, said.
"The law will give them no mercy."
Roy Lagarde, Divina Suson, Bong Sarmiento, Ben Serrano, and Jigger Jerusalem contributed to this report.