After several failed attempts, Marawi Bishop Edwin de la Peña was finally able to revisit the ruined city center of Marawi and the remnants of a desecrated Cathedral that he used to call home.
Upon his entry to the Church, the Bishop quietly knelt before the altar where he celebrated the Holy Mass for 17 years. He then proceeded to the beheaded statue of Maria Auxiliadora (Mary Help of Christians), to whom the Cathedral is dedicated to. Above the Bishop is the image of Jesus Christ crucified, face mangled and disfigured when it was violently brought down by ISIS-inspired terrorists. Philippine soldiers re-hoisted the image with ropes and nylon wires when they celebrated Mass last 1 October 2017.
The city center of Marawi continues to be a heavily-restricted area. The residents are still not yet allowed to return to their ancestral homes. En route to the cathedral, the ACN delegation, accompanied by military escorts, passed by eerie and abandoned streets ghostly buildings, mosques and family mansions severely damaged by the war.
Standing at the site of the cathedral entrance and fronting his destroyed residence, the Bishop could only mutter a few words.
“So many memories. We were the ones who built this. Now, everything is destroyed, even the trees we planted are riddled with damage from bullets and mortar,” de la Peña said.
The Bishop then asked the delegation to go back to the altar where he asked everyone to gather in a circle, hold hands and then led in the praying of the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be.
Back to reality, the Bishop then met with volunteers and partners of Duyog Marawi, the social action program set-up by the Prelature to respond to the post-war needs of the residents of Marawi. Duyog in the local language means to accompany.
The team is led by a few priests, nuns and Catholic lay leaders who have worked for Caritas. But the bulk of volunteers are young Muslim residents of Marawi.
For the past three months, these volunteers have been reaching out to the war-affected residents and IDPs living on the outskirts of Marawi. The youth have volunteered to man help desks documenting the grievances of the locals. More importantly, they have conducted humanitarian campaigns and peace education sessions in different Muslim communities.
According to the Prelature’s assessment, the government, media, and the public are underestimating the consequences of the dire situation in the region. Even before the war, Lanao del Sur is already the most impoverished region of the country. Now, as the locals are deprived of an economic center, residents in adjacent towns, as well as IDPs, wallow in poverty and neglect. This was further aggravated by a tropical storm that hit the region just last month.
“This is fertile ground for terrorist recruitment. We can confirm that families in far-flung towns are being offered ₱40,000 (est. €650) and a water buffalo in exchange for attendance to a recruitment session. Terrorists then indoctrinate children and teenagers with extreme interpretations of Islam and eventually train them in military warfare,” said Bro. Reynaldo Barnido, Executive Director of Duyog Marawi.
“With the government focused on peace-keeping and rebuilding efforts and the international community prevented from doing humanitarian work due to a non-declaration of a level 3 emergency by the Philippine President, Duyog Marawi serves as the only alternative voice advocating for peace and harmony in these very difficult times,” added Mr. Barnido
As the lives of many families are in limbo due to the lack of livelihood and permanent residence, volunteering for Duyog Marawi is also an opportunity for Muslim youth to counter the message of conflict, disillusionment, and resentment that is pervading Muslim communities in the region.
“Truly, Duyog Marawi is an opportunity to partner with Christians in meaningful and productive work. It is the only hope that keeps us going is Duyog Marawi, said Hidaya Sultan and Naif Alawi who are both Muslim volunteers of the Prelature’s Duyog Marawi.
Communicating closely with the Muslim leaders, Bishop de la Peña said Muslims are realizing through Duyog Marawi that they need Christians in this period of rebuilding. Conversely, the Bishop acknowledges Christians also need the protection and support of Muslims for Duyog Marawi to be successful.
“We are now at this point where both Christians and Muslims have come to realize that they need each other to move forward,” the Bishop said.
Bishop de la Peña then summed up the dramatic day by looking back on his trip and finding hope in the collaboration being promised by the partners and volunteers of Duyog Marawi.
“While visiting Marawi earlier, all I could think about was how to start again with all this destruction. But as I talk to you, I know there’s a brighter tomorrow because before me now is the future of Marawi.”
ACN is an official partner of Duyog Marawi. Last August 2017, ACN has already donated €20,000 for emergency relief of Marawi IDPs and is currently working with the Bishop to support more projects in the coming months.