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A Muted Christmas in Philippine City After ISIS Attack on Churchgoers

The small Catholic community in Marawi has weathered ongoing threats in the Islamic city.
A Muted Christmas in Philippine City After ISIS Attack on Churchgoers
Image: Xinhua News Agency / Contributor / Getty
Police investigators and soldiers are seen at the site of an explosion at Mindanao State University in the Philippines.

Two weeks after ISIS-linked terrorists detonated an explosive during a Catholic Mass held at Mindanao State University (MSU) in the Philippines, killing four and wounding 45, the small Catholic community in the Muslim-majority city of Marawi is planning a scaled-down Christmas celebration.

They canceled the usual processions during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, instead calling Catholics to light candles on windowsills and pray the rosary at home. They also canceled the traditional Simbang Gabi, a nine-day series of dawn Masses leading up to Christmas Eve. For security, members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines stand guard at the university to ensure the safety of churchgoers, which totaled 72 when the attack happened.

Edwin Dela Peña, the bishop of Marawi, told CT that members of the MSU chaplaincy ministry are still processing the trauma of the attack. Some are asking, Lord, why did you allow this to happen to us? Dela Peña and other church leaders have used questions like this as “stepping stones to help [members] get ahold of themselves.” They acknowledge that confronting these questions about faith is essential in the process of overcoming trauma.

“The attack has caused disbelief, emotion, and great pain in everyone, Christians and Muslims,” Dela Peña told Agenzia Fides. “They hit us right in the heart, during the Eucharist, the climax of our faith. There is much fear now, but faith accompanies us and gives us support. Even in this time of distress, we feel the presence of the Lord.”

While the Philippines is a largely Catholic country, Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao, is 99.4 percent Muslim. Dela Peña believes the timing of the attack—on the first day of Advent—was a deliberate act of provocation against Christians in Marawi. The Islamic State group said its fighters were responsible for the attack, with the military and police pointing to local militant group Dawlah Islamiyah-Maute, which laid siege on Marawi in 2017. Recently, the Philippine military had launched operations against the group in western Mindanao, and many believe the attack was an act of retaliation.

The explosion, which took place on the morning of December 3, targeted the students, employees, and other worshippers gathered for Mass in the university’s gym. Two students, a lecturer, and the mother of a student were killed. Police arrested a man believed to be an accomplice in the attack, while the man who planted the explosive device is still on the run.

Basari D. Mapupuno, president of MSU, said in a statement that the school’s staff “vehemently condemn such an atrocious act of terror, which clearly was intended to sow fear and division to a community whose constituents, who belong to various faiths, have been co-existing peacefully and exercising their right to freedom of religion inside the campus for more than six decades now.”

This is not the first time Catholics in Marawi have faced an existential threat. During the 2017 Marawi siege, militants affiliated with the Islamic State group targeted Christians, desecrating and burning St. Mary’s Cathedral and a Christian college while also taking a priest and several churchgoers hostage. They sought to declare an Islamic state in the province of Lanao del Sur.

“We realized that we were the primary target [of the 2017 attack] because we are Christians and Marawi is an Islamic city,” Dela Peña said. “They are questioning why we are here.”

He noted a disconnect, as Muslims are allowed to worship in their mosques in the capital of Manila despite the city being majority Catholic. The population of Muslims in Manila and other urban centers in the northern Philippines has been increasing. This demonstrates the need for further interreligious understanding, he said, especially as the church attack occurred during the Mindanao Week of Peace, which included Christian-Muslim discussions, demonstrations, and prayers.

At the same time, the bishop noted that “we have so many friends—sympathizers who are Muslims. That strengthens us: the thought that those who did this to us are only a handful.”

Dela Peña told Fides that the first responders and doctors aiding the victims were Muslims and that the Muslim community supported the families of those killed and the wounded. A Muslim alumnus of MSU told Rappler, “These people are family. The families of these young students entrusted them to us. We cannot abandon them.”

Christians in Marawi said these gestures “give us hope and tell us that this brutal and senseless violence will not have the last word, it will not succeed in destroying the good works built over many years,” Dela Peña told Fides.

Interreligious dialogues between Christians and Muslims in Marawi began in 1976 when the Catholic prelature (area outside of a diocese) was established, the bishop said. After 9/11, Muslims in the area initiated more dialogues with Christians as they felt “Islam was hijacked by terrorists when, in fact, it is a religion of peace.”

The Dawlah Islamiyah-Maute group stems from a violent Islamist movement called the Moro National Liberation Front, which has sought independence for decades in hopes of creating an independent Islamic state. It joined with two other extremist groups also aligned with ISIS—Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters—to launch the siege in 2017. During the fighting, the Philippine military claimed the Maute group had been “practically wiped out,” as they had killed the group’s leadership. Yet remnants of the group continued to recruit new members.

In 2019, members of the Abu Sayyaf group killed 20 churchgoers and soldiers and wounded 111 in a double bombing during Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the island of Jolo, southwest of Mindanao. Two decades earlier, Abu Sayyaf assassinated the bishop of Jolo outside Mount Carmel and bombed the cathedral in 2001.

Despite all the turmoil, the work of the Catholic church continues in Marawi, including the rebuilding of St. Mary’s Cathedral. “The bombing did not stop us from continuing the service to our Catholic constituents,” Dela Peña told MindaNews. “This is a laboratory of Muslim-Christian integration.”

On Sunday, MSU Marawi Campus Catholic Community held Mass at a small chapel that was still under construction, according to a member’s Facebook post. The post noted that some of the attendees still had bandages on their wounds from the attack.

Dela Peña, who has held his position for nearly 22 years, said that in these devastating times, he holds onto the words of Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

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