1997-02-05 00:00:00

Philippine bishops called for calm and sobriety after Oblate Bishop Benjamin De Jesus of Jolo was killed Feb. 4 outside the cathedral in his southern Philippine apostolic vicariate.

The vicariate, which covers Sulu and Tawi-tawi provinces, and is based in Jolo, Sulu, 950 kilometers southwest of Manila, has seen sporadic violence between Muslim militants and the military.

Some 93 percent of its people are Muslims.

Archbishop Fernando Capalla of Davao warned against "rushing to make connections between Bishop De Jesus´ murder and Abu Sayyaf or other Muslim extremist groups."

"It is hard to make any conclusions right now," added Archbishop Capalla, who heads the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of the Philippines´ (CBCP) Commission on Inter-Religious Dialogue.

"It is the responsibility of the Church to make strong pronouncements against the deed, but to offer forgiveness in spite of it," he said. "That´s what our Christian faith means. If not for forgiveness, what is the use of our Christianity?"

Bishop De Jesus, 56, died instantly when he was shot in the head as he left Jolo´s Our Lady Of Mount Carmel Cathedral at 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 4.

Two gunmen shot him six times at close range in the right cheek, shoulder and arm, at the back of the neck, and twice in the chest, CBCP spokesperson Monsignor Pedro Quitorio III reported.

Quoting reports from Jolo Chancellor Oblate Father Alfredo Epiz, the CBCP said there were three assailants, one between 30 and 40 years who fired the first shot, followed by shots from a youth described as being 10-15 years old.

A third accomplice reportedly served as lookout and driver of a black jeep-like vehicle parked near the scene of the crime.

Police pursued the gunmen through Serantes Market, reportedly killing at least one woman and wounding several other civilians.

As of the morning of Feb. 5, Philippine National Police (PNP) Chief Ricardo Sarmiento said the PNP had not identified any suspects or motive for the killing.

Oblate Archbishop Philip Smith of Cotabato, just northeast of Jolo, said Bishop De Jesus had just ended a meeting with the mayor when he was killed. He said the assailants used .45-caliber handguns.

He and Archbishop Capalla denied any knowledge of "bodyguards" Bishop De Jesus might have recruited due to reported threats on his life. Father Emmanuel Sison, Oblate bursar in Cotabato, told UCA News the most serious threat the bishop had received was kidnapping.

In 1993 two Spanish Carmelite sisters were kidnapped in Sulu and released. In 1994 Oblate Father Clarence Bertelsman was kidnapped by members of Abu Sayyaf.

At the time, Bishop De Jesus said Father Bertelsman had substituted for him at a Mass inside a military camp when he was kidnapped.

Father Sison said that although the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the breakaway Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were both strong in Sulu, there was no reason to suspect that either group had a hand in the killing.

On Sept. 2, MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari signed an agreement with the government providing for peace and development in Mindanao.

The MILF has signed a limited cease-fire with the government until peace negotiations proceed after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan ends.

Mindanao bishops and members of the Ulama (Islamic religious leaders) League of the Philippines are collaborating in support of regional peace initiatives.

"The Bishop was always open and in favor of interreligious dialogue and was also on very good terms with the Muslims at all levels in Jolo. It is a mystery why this was done to the bishop," Father Sison said.

Bishop De Jesus, a native of the Manila suburb of Malabon, was first assigned to Jolo´s Notre Dame College in 1976. He was ordained bishop by Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1992.

His body lay at the bishop´s residence in Jolo.

Bishop De Jesus is the first Philippine bishop to be assassinated in CBCP history. Auxiliary Bishop Hernando Antiporda of Manila was killed in 1975 during what is believed to have been a robbery.


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