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.