Philippines: “The reconstruction of the city of Marawi will take years”

Reinhard Backes travelled to the Philippine city of Marawi for the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need. The Christian minority in the city was suppressed for months by Islamists. An interview about relations between Christians and Muslims in the region and how the aftermath of the conflict is being dealt with.


1. What has been happening in Marawi over the last few months?

The city is a centre of the Muslim faith on Mindanao, even though the island itself, the second largest of the Philippines, has a Christian majority. And of all places, this was the place that was targeted by Islamist extremists. It all started on 23 May 2017. The Philippine military had planned an operation to arrest the leader of the so-called “Islamic State” of the region. However, extremists beat them to it and occupied the historic city centre of Marawi until well into October. In the end, the conflict was resolved through violence. The army massively bombed the city centre. According to official sources, 920 extremists, 165 soldiers and 45 civilians were killed.


2. Was this more of a spontaneous attack or had the occupation been planned for a long time?

Apparently, the attackers were well prepared and well informed about the planned military operation. They may even have been warned by informants within the military. However, like so many other things, this is a matter of speculation because detailed information about what happened during the attack on Marawi is still not available. When I visited the city in early March, it was explained to me that the majority of extremists were Indonesians. Mindanao is easy to reach from Indonesia by ocean. It apparently was and still is difficult for the military to control the ocean route. Observers believe that the army was not prepared for such a threat.


3. Were the Islamists helped by members of the general population?

It has to be assumed that they did receive some sort of “backing” from the general population. After all, the extremists apparently used a tunnel system to move about underground. And something like that certainly does not happen overnight.


4. According to media reports, Christians were taken hostage, among them a priest.

Many hostages were taken, the majority of which were Christians. Apparently, the Catholic Saint Mary’s Cathedral was one of the first sites targeted by the extremists in the city. It is to be assumed that they wanted to take the bishop of Marawi, Edwin de la Peña, hostage, but he was not in the city centre at the time. And so they took the vicar general, Teresito Suganob, and other believers instead. However, the Islamists also took hostages from among the Muslims whom they accused of collaborating with the Christians.


5. Was Saint Mary’s Cathedral defiled or desecrated in any way?

Yes. The church is pretty much completely destroyed, including all sculptures, statues of Our Lady and crucifixes. I saw a statue of the Virgin Mary that had been beheaded. They probably burned the head. All that was left was the clothed corpus. From an architectural standpoint, the cathedral is a rather simple, hall-like structure. Marawi is majority Muslim and so it was not acceptable to build an overly conspicuous Christian church. The Catholic community there has only a few thousand members, who are scattered for the time being.


6. What was the relationship between Christians and Muslims before the Islamists invaded?

Just as in other countries, such as Pakistan, where Christians are only a small minority among Muslims, they try to establish a good relationship with their Muslim neighbours. At least this is what I have noticed on the Catholic side. This is also the reason why Christians usually maintain close ties to the Muslim authorities, and Marawi was no exception. The same is probably also true for the Muslims, because the vast majority just wanted to coexist peacefully with their neighbours. This is why relations were mostly friendly. Now, however, a certain degree of distrust pervades.


7. How is the bishop of Marawi, Edwin de la Peña, dealing with the situation?

Bishop de la Peña is very keen on reconciling the two sides. That is why he has not made rebuilding the cathedral a top priority. He is focusing on strengthening the feeling of community and rebuilding relations between peoples and religions.


8. Have specific projects been developed to work towards these goals?

The diocese has started a number of initiatives. One of these is a rehabilitation centre, which offers assistance to over 200 people who were held captive for months and suffered physical and emotional torment. The centre is open to both Christians and Muslims. The counselling services include group and individual therapy sessions for women, girls and teenagers who have been raped, for men who have fallen victim to violence or were beaten, and for children who need to be reintegrated into daily life following the terrible experiences they have suffered.


9. And you mentioned another project…

It is called “Youth for Peace” and is also an initiative of the local Church. As part of this project, 184 predominately Muslim students attending Mindanao State University visit refugee camps. Thousands upon thousands of people fled the city centre during the conflict and are now living in camps that were set up outside of the city. The objective of “Youth for Peace” is to help these refugees, showing them “we are here for you, we want to recreate that, which we once had, namely, a peaceful coexistence”: this is what the students want to achieve. In doing so, it does not matter whether the refugees are Christian or Muslim.


10. How is Aid to the Church in Need supporting these projects?

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) first provided emergency relief for the refugees during the conflict. Now we would like to help make sure that the rehabilitation centre can continue its work. We are also supporting the “Duyog Marawi” Peace Corridor Programme of the local Church. “Youth for Peace” is one of the projects started by this programme. So far, two vehicles have been donated, a van and a transporter. Further aid is planned. We are also talking about helping to set up shelters for the refugees who have been living for months in tents. With tropical temperatures far exceeding 30 degrees, conditions inside the tents are almost impossible to endure. And then it also starts raining, at times heavily. Tents are therefore not a long-term solution. Instead, small, temporary houses are being discussed, which should meet the needs of the refugees for the time being. ACN may get involved in this.


11. Is there a realistic chance that the city can be rebuilt in the next few years?

Reconstruction will certainly take many years. I have never seen a city centre destroyed to the degree that Marawi has been. And not much has happened since the fighting ended in October last year. The military says that all the unexploded bombs, ammunition and booby traps left behind by the extremists first need to be removed.


12. What are your thoughts now after your trip?

On the one hand, it is quite dramatic to see how Islamists have used and destroyed an entire city, an established culture, and to what extremes ideological delusion can lead. On the other hand, I was very surprised by the people of Marawi. Their situation may be catastrophic, but they have hope, they are taking action. I learned how important their Catholic faith is to them, the selfless concept of charity, which can be seen in the concrete aid being offered to the victims. And it was very encouraging to see how openly the young volunteers, both Muslims and Christians, interacted with each other. Almost in unison they said that by working together, they came to understand the beliefs of the others better, but at the same time, were strengthened in their own sense of identity.



ACN International


ACN Philippines and Duyog Marawi Launch Campaign to Help Rebuild Prelature of Marawi and its People

Ten months after Marawi was seized by terrorist forces, Aid to the Church in Need Philippines and Duyog Marawi formally launched their campaign to help rebuild the prelature of Marawi and its people on March 23, 2018 at the Arzobispado de Manila, in the Intramuros district of Manila. Although ACN began providing help in the earliest stages of the conflict and Duyog Marawi activated its system at the same time, the launch formalized their partnership and commitment.

Through the media launch ACN Philippines and Duyog Marawi presented its plans and programs to address the various needs of the  city’s half a million people  displaced and about 80,000 families affected. Speaking at the launch Prelature of Marawi Bishop Edwin dela Pena said that although the Christians in Marawi comprise a very small minority, the prelature is one with the people—particularly the Maranaos—in their loss and suffering.

Duyog Marawi (duyog is Cebuano word that means “accompany”), he said is committed to the partnership with ACN, who has been helping Marawi soon after the outbreak of the conflict. ACN joins Duyog Marawi in its two-fold thrust that was enunciated by Bishop dela Pena as: first, contributing to the rehabilitation of 30,000 families mostly from Ground Zero (the center of the battle in the city) and second, to work in the area of peace education towards Muslim-Christian Dialogue.

For his part, Jonathan Luciano, ACN Philippines director, said that Pontifical Foundation will help in five areas summarized in the acronym HILOM (which in Filipino means HEALING):

H – ealing. ACN will support all psycho-social healing programs of the Prelature for the affected Maranaos and most especially to the survivors of the hostage-taking during the six-month siege. These programs will employ culture-based approaches to healing and wellness for local communities.

I – nterfaith Dialogue. ACN seeks to support the various programs of the Prelature to rebuild the fruits of interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians. These will be done through peace education, dialogue and communications.

L – ivelihood support for Maranaos and Christians. As the city center of Marawi is still closed to its former residents, many of its former settlers are without sustainable income. ACN will work with the Prelature in coming up with livelihood support for the residents until they could either start a new business or return to their original means of livelihood once the city center is re-opened.

O – ne in worship. ACN will help rehabilitate the chaplaincy located in the Mindanao State University and will provide a Chapel Truck.

M – ovement for Peace. Through peace education the movement aims to foster deeper mutual understanding among Christians and Muslims in the region.

Juhaira Saidali, a Muslim volunteer in Duyog Marawi reported during the launch the activities that the prelature’s social action arm has been undertaking. Through its 148 Maranao and Christian young professionals, Duyog Marawi has served thousands of families in several communities by providing shelter assistance, water, and aids for sanitation and hygiene; livelihood, food relief, medical mission, psychosocial support services, trauma therapy, peace education and promotion of inter-faith dialogue. It also runs a therapeutic and recovery program for Christians who were held hostage by the ISIS forces.

One of the early hostages of the Marawi siege is Fr. Teresito “Chito” Soganub. Along with 120 others he was held captive until the city was liberated. During his captivity, Father Chito said that the situation of being under constant threat of a bullet was deeply excruciating for him and his prayer daily was for strength to have faith.

ACN will help Father Chito and the hostages by supporting the program for their healing and rehabilitation.

Unable to be present at the launch, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of ACN Philippines sent a message. The campaign, he said, is an appeal for prayers for the healing of Marawi; an appeal for funds to help rebuild the ruined homes in Marawi; and is a call for peace-loving peoples never to allow the Marawi war ever to happen anywhere else again.

Local, foreign and Church media attended the launch. Also present were Brother Reynaldo Barnido, director of Duyog Marawi, and Ms. Julieta Wasan, president of Sangguniang Laiko ng Pilipinas, the organization of all lay and transparochial associations, mandated organizations and clubs.


By: Peachy E. Yamsuan/ACN Philippines

Marawi Bishop on Viral Video: Respond in a Christian Manner

By Josemaria Claro, ACN Philippines

Bishop Edwin dela Peña of Marawi urged Filipinos to respond in a Christian manner to a video that has gone viral showing Maute terrorists desecrating sacred images of the Catholic Church.

In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Philippines, Bishop dela Peña remarked, “when people are angry, that anger can lead to something irrational. We are not going to respond with the same kind of hatred and violence that they are trying to sow in us.”

Bishop dela Peña reminded Catholics of Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies. “This is a challenge for us to show love for people who do not want to accept us,” said dela Peña.

Desecration of Images, A Trademark of ISIS

Catholic churches in Mindanao have been targeted by Muslim extremists for decades but yesterday’s viral video showing Maute terrorists toppling, trampling and destroying statues of the Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary bears striking resemblance to the same inflammatory propaganda videos of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.


A Christian church and the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is desecrated by ISIS in the chapel of St. Addai Church in Batnaya, Iraq. Similar acts of desecration in the Cathedral of Marawi were recorded and spread in a video online.

As in the Middle East, these acts were deliberately video-recorded for dissemination over social media in order to insult Christians.

Bishop dela Peña disclosed to ACN that unlike the Abu Sayyaf, which has long been known for its terrorist activities in the region, the Maute group is headed by members of an affluent Maranao family who sent their children to the Middle East.

ACN reported in a previous article that the radicalization in Mindanao has worsened with the proliferation of Islamist movements of Wahhabi inspiration, supported by Saudi Arabia. In another article, ACN also revealed that Islamist ideas are largely funded by countries in the Middle East, particularly through funding for scholarships that allow students to take courses in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and financial support for the publishing and distribution of Islamist literature in university campuses and mosques.

The 2014 Religious Freedom Report (RFR), published biannually by ACN, also disclosed that social media plays an important role in the spread of Islamist extremism.  “The rise of social media has meant that fundamentalism and religious hatred is felt far beyond geographical boundaries. Extremism, popularized through Facebook, Twitter, chat rooms and other social media, is such that religious hatred preached in a distant country is quickly of local concern,” read the Introduction of the 2014 RFR.

Distinguish between True Muslims and extremists

Despite the affront of the Maute terrorists on his Cathedral, Bishop dela Peña remarked that it is important not to attribute this kind of violent behavior to all Muslims.

“The danger about this video is that people begin to generalize and get back on innocent people. It is important to distinguish between true Muslims and religious extremists, between people who are trying to sow dissension and people who are moderate and level-headed,” said dela Peña.

Note: This is a developing story. ACN Philippines will update the article once more information is obtained.

How Filipino Muslims Sheltered Their Christian Countrymen During the Marawi Siege

By Josemaria Claro, ACN Philippines

Farida, a Muslim store owner in Marawi City, had no choice but to let the terrorists that barged in her store last May 24 plunder her goods and products. But when the armed men turned their attention to her 13 male employees huddled in a corner of the store, Farida looked the men in the eyes and told them in Maranao, “You will have to kill me first before you even touch them.” The terrorists, mostly in their teens, sensed the seriousness of Farida’s resolve and contented themselves with their loot. Farida knew she had to resort to such extreme measure to prevent any interaction between the gunmen and her employees who were mostly Christian migrants from nearby provinces. They have worked for almost a decade for Farida. Had the gunmen talked to them, it would be immediately found out that they were Christians and they would be taken along with their families.

After the terrorists fled, Farida immediately ordered all her employees to hide in her relative’s house. She then contacted her uncle to facilitate the escape of her Christian employees by boat to cross the ancient and sacred Maranao lake, and from there travel safely towards Iligan City. Farida’s story was published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), one of the nation’s most widely-read newspapers.

In their language, Maranao means people of the lake as the elevated city of Marawi is located along the shores of the majestic and placid Lake Lanao. The Maranaos are the largest of the thirteen ethnic Muslim groups in the Philippines with each ethnic group having its own culture, literary tradition, and language. The Maranaos have long occupied the mountainous regions of Lanao del Sur in Central Mindanao. They are known for their music, epics, and textiles. They are also famous for their trading prowess and for these skills, Marawi City flourished as a business hub as early as the early 1900s. It was made the capital of the entire Lanao province and serves as the kilometer zero reference points of all roads in Mindanao.

As skilled tradespeople, the Maranaos are among the more affluent Muslim groups in the Philippines and Marawi City is one of the few places in the country where Christians from nearby provinces work for Muslim employers. Some Christians have decided to migrate to Marawi thanks to the good treatment of Muslim employers like Farida, who lets her workers live in their family compound.

Other stories like that of Farida’s were reported in various Philippine newspapers for the past days. There is also the story of Zaynab, a humanitarian worker who personally went along with 20 Christians in a 15-hour alternate route to avoid the gridlock of fleeing residents of Marawi City. “I never minded the danger. I was prepared to die first before they (terrorists) could harm the Christians, the PDI quotes Zaynab.

Another newspaper, The Philippine Star, recounts how a Muslim prosecutor sheltered 42 Christians in a tall building that he owns before facilitating their escape by batches. It also published a story about how seven Christians studying in Mindanao State University were trapped in their dormitories for days with three other Muslims. All throughout the ordeal, the Muslims assured their Christian schoolmates that should they be captured, they will never forsake them.

Marawi City Bishop Edwin dela Peña told ACN how a local Muslim official oriented the family of his personal driver and their other Christian companions about what they should tell the terrorists in the event of a confrontation. He then personally led them to buses that will take them to safety in Iligan City. “I would consider him a hero for leading these group of Christians and Muslims together, trying to flee from the danger that was awaiting them,” Bishop dela Peña told ACN.

These stories reflect the sense of compassion inherent in Muslim Maranaos. But it may also reflect the growing solidarity among Muslims and the Christian minority in Marawi City born from the efforts of the Catholic Church to engage their Muslim counterparts in interfaith dialogue. “[The Christian-Muslim relation] was beautiful. We were engaged in interfaith dialogue and we have many partners. It was beautiful until this extremism emerged, the fighting, the presence of these extremist elements from the Middle East, and the radicalization of young people.”

Bishop dela Peña is quick to refute however the allegation of the terrorists that the influence of Daesh (ISIS) is getting the support of the locals. “They (Maranaos) feel a certain kind of anger against these terrorist groups coming in to disturb this very holy remembrance of Ramadan. So if these extremist groups wanted to get the support of the people, they are not getting it now.” He adds, “in fact, we learned from them that they are also against this influx of ISIS elements coming into Marawi because they knew exactly what consequences would be to the culture of people, to the way of life. The people of Marawi have always been very peaceful.”

Even though his cathedral and bishop’s residence have been burned to the ground, in his appeal to ACN community, Bishop dela Peña wants to prioritize the humanitarian needs of the Maranao IDPs (internally displaced persons) cramped in evacuation centers in Iligan City. “We are not so much concerned about our needs in the moment, our focus is more trying to do what we can to respond to the humanitarian crisis that has turned up in Iligan right now, we have so many evacuees from Marawi and they need all the support that we can get.” The Bishop also asked for global awareness of the ongoing crisis, “we need to bring the attention of the world to what is happening in Marawi right now,” said the Bishop.

In his final appeal, Bishop dela Peña implores, “we are also working with our Muslim brothers and sisters who are with us in dialogue, it is one great opportunity for us to show our solidarity and try to respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters especially in the evacuation centers. So this is what we are doing and if there is anything you can do to help us…, we would welcome it very much.”

Despite the ongoing tragedy, the Catholic Church, in communion with the Muslim Maranaos, believe Marawi City will rise from the ashes. It is hoped that the city’s forthcoming metamorphosis will send a strong message to the perverted minds of terrorists in the Middle East that the fires of hate and war will never scorch the hard-earned solidarity among Filipino Christians and Muslims and their shared dream of a peaceful and progressive Mindanao.


Photo Caption: An interfaith activity by the Silsilah Movement in Zamboanga City. Marawi City Bishop Edwin dela Peña believes interfaith dialogues are key to fighting religious extremism.

Catholic Priest and Staff Held Hostage by Lawless Elements in Southern Philippines

ACN Philippines, 24 May 2017

A Catholic priest and his staff are reportedly being held hostage by ISIS-inspired lawless elements that have occupied a number of facilities and public buildings in the Islamic city of Marawi, Central Mindanao, Philippines.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines as well as ACN Philippines, has called on the Catholic faithful to pray for the safety of Fr. Chito Suganob, MSP and his staff who were taking refuge at the Cathedral of St. Mary’s. The Cathedral has reportedly been taken over and set on fire last night by the Muslim extremists according to news received by Philippine news agencies, Zamboanga News and Radio Mindanao Network.

“Members of the Maute fighting group have threatened to kill the hostages if the government forces unleashed against them are not recalled. As government forces ensure that the law is upheld, we beg of them to make the safety of the hostages a primordial consideration,” said Archbishop Villegas in a public Facebook post.

The attack on Marawi started on the afternoon of May 23 when the Philippine military launched an operation against “high value targets” belonging to the Abu Sayyaf and Maute terrorist groups in a commercial and residential area in Marawi.

In retaliation, around 100-200 armed men, assisted by local sympathizers, occupied the Amai Pakpak Medical Center in Marawi City. An hour later, the terrorist group occupied the Marawi City Jail and allegedly set the facility on fire. Photographs of black ISIS flags hoisted by the terrorists in different parts of the city spread online.

Later in the evening, Philippine media reported that two other fires broke out in Dansalan College and Saint Mary’s Cathedral. The news agencies also mentioned in their reports that the armed men have laid siege of the city’s firetrucks thus preventing authorities from putting out the fires.

Despite the reports, the Philippine government, through its Armed Forces, claims the situation is fully under control and has urged Filipinos to refrain from sowing panic by sharing unverified accounts of the ongoing crisis. The military has also denied the claim that ISIS has reached the country. The President declared Martial Law last night in the entirety of Mindanao.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Villegas pointed out in his statement that the incident should be a cause for solidarity among Filipino Muslims and Christians.

“We are fully aware that most Muslims are peace-loving. We call on all Catholics to pray with our Muslim brothers and sisters. We call on the occupiers who claim to worship the same God that we all do not defile His name by bloodshed. Peace be upon us all,” added Archbishop Villegas in a statement.


ACN Philippines Staff