Jolo, Sulu – A small city in military lockdown, an all-out war in the adjacent municipality against violent extremists, families in mourning after burying their dead, injured patients recovering in various hospitals even as others have to be amputated, and a local Church trying its best to provide hope to the Christian minority while their Muslim partners rally their members to show a force of unity amidst the fear and pain in this impoverished city.
Nine days after a fatal twin bombing of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral that caused death, destruction and depression, news of arrests and surrender of suspected perpetrators fail to uplift the spirit of the residents. Even with the assurance of tight security, a well-organized Tribute to the Victims managed to fill-in only a fraction of their intended audience. Many opted to stay at home. A few of the families are seriously thinking of leaving Jolo for good, the bombing being the last straw that break their resilience against years of threats, kidnapping, assassination, and harassment by what they call “the forces of evil.”
But the messages from all sides – military, local government, traditional leaders, lay partners – are constant: the persecution was not done by Muslims but a small minority of violent extremists.
“No bullet or bomb can destroy the harmonious relationship between Muslims and Christians in Jolo,” said Fr. Romeo Saniel, OMI, who is barely a week in his new position as the Apostolic Administrator of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo. As pastor of a small minority (one percent of the whole population of 120,000), he is revered and admired by the people for his commitment to provide quality education and opportunities to the young generation of Tausug and his courage and determination to reach out to the MILF surrenderees.
“The only way for peace to be lasting is for both Muslims and Christians to stand together. We will not allow this tragedy to divide us and isolate us from the rest of the country,” said Datu Sakul Tan, considered the most influential man in the whole of Sulu, patriarch of a powerful political clan, who studied in and believes in the relevance of quality education provided by the Church for the locals.
The needs are clearly articulated by the clergy and lay. Even as the Armed Forces of the Philippines aim to eliminate the Abu Sayaf Group, everyone agrees that it doesn’t guarantee peace, as those who will die will simply be replaced by the younger generation.
Fr. Jeff Nadua, OMI, Rector of the Cathedral, cites the need to rebuild the Christian community first, and rehabilitation of the Cathedral second. “We need to help our Christians recover from this trauma and see all this in the eyes of faith. Then we can focus our energies on rebuilding the structure which is heavily damaged by the twin bombing.”
Fr. Saniel and Datu Sakul Tan both agree that a long-term need is to provide prevention of violent extremism programs to grassroots youth by both formal education, awareness campaigns, and youth engagements in productive work like livelihoods and sports development.
Bro. Reynaldo Barnido
Aid to the Church in Need Philippines National Director Jonathan Luciano made a solidarity visit to the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo on February 4-5, 2019. He visited the heavily damaged Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral and spoke with the Apostolic Administrator Fr. Romeo Saniel, OMI as well as some relatives of the victims.