In this file photo Father Teresito Soganub, who was taken hostage by terrorist gunmen in Marawi on May 23, 2017, cries during a Holy Thursday ritual in Manila. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
A year after his abduction by terrorist gunmen, Catholic priest Teresito Soganub, who used to be the vicar-general of the Prelature of Marawi, is on a journey for forgiveness.
The priest admitted that during his four-month ordeal in the hands of the Islamic State-inspired terrorists he embraced Islam and collected ammunition for them.
"I was a captive," said the priest. "I was not afraid to die, but I was afraid to suffer," he said in what sounded like a confession days before the first anniversary of the attack on May 23.
He admitted feeling a "sense of uncertainty" despite being told that he would not be killed. "I did not know what would happen," he said, adding that during that time his only concern was to live.
Father Soganub said there was even a point during those trying times that he had doubts about his faith and questioned God's wisdom.
"I was angry with God for putting me in such a horrible situation. However, my faith in the Lord did not waiver. In fact it even became deeper," he said.
"I prayed more feverishly than I used to do with death staring us straight in the face. Anytime, a bomb or a bullet could hit anyone of us during the fierce fighting between the two sides," the priest added.
During his captivity, Father Soganub was forced to attend lectures about the terrorists' cause. He soon got to know his captors who claimed to be members of the so-called Islamic State.
When one of the terrorists died, the priest said he felt sad. "You cannot avoid feeling human even when the enemy dies. We transcend from being a captive and a hostage taker," he said.
Terrorist gunmen captured him and several church workers at Marawi cathedral on May 23, the first day of fighting.
The gunmen took 30 people from the cathedral offices, tore down and desecrated icons and other sacred images and set fire to the building.
The Philippine military later claimed that the gunmen took more than 200 people hostage.
Father Soganub appeared in a video a week after his capture, appealing to President Rodrigo Duterte to withdraw troops and cease air strikes against the terrorists.
"We became friends," said the priest of his captors. "We talked together, we slept together, we had the same fears," he said.
Prayer became the priest's refuge during his ordeal. He prayed to the Virgin Mary, he prayed to Jesus, he prayed to God. He prayed for guidance on how to escape.
One day, he had the opportunity. "Nobody helped me," said the priest. He was with his sacristan who was also taken by the gunmen.
With a gun in his hand and the knowledge that government troops were nearby, Father Soganub and the sacristan took off in the middle of the night.
The priest made it, but the sacristan did not.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila kisses the foot of Father Teresito Soganub on Holy Thursday. The priest was taken captive by Islamic State-inspired gunmen during the occupation of Marawi City on May 23, 2017. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
The road to healing
The physical healing process was the easy part for Father Soganub. "I go to the doctor regularly and undergo pain therapy," he said.
But the psychiatric and psychological parts are the hardest, he said, adding that it is "very devastating, your inner being is destroyed."
Father Soganub said he is not yet back to what is supposed to be normal. "I wake up even at the slightest sound," said the priest.
He avoids people and prays a lot. "If it is difficult to rebuild a building, how much more a person? It is very difficult to rebuild the inner being of a person," he said.
Father Soganub said it is hard to forget the many times bombs exploded around him, the times death was so real, the moments that he could not even feel fear because death was preferable than suffering.
He said there is still anger in his heart, "but I am a Christian and I am a priest."
"I still believe that the Christian way is the way of love, and forgiveness is part of it," he said.
These days, the priest is touring the country to promote inter-religious dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims.
His speaking engagements are his way of thanking those who prayed for him and for his safety.
"I am deeply touched by the many people who come to me and tell me that they prayed for my safety," he said.
When asked if he would be going back to Marawi, Father Soganub said he would not be going back to his "regular ministry."
He served 23 years of his priesthood in the Prelature of Marawi as vicar-general and as the Catholic chaplain at the city's Mindanao State University.
The conflict went on to last five months, during which Duterte declared martial law across the entire southern Philippine region of Mindanao. Congress later extended martial law until Dec. 31 this year.
The conflict also resulted in the death of more than a thousand people, mostly terrorist gunmen, and the displacement of about 400,000 residents.
This article was first published 23.5.2018.