A bishop in the Philippines, whose cathedral and home were destroyed by extremists, has stated that his top priority is to rebuild inter-faith relations and bring healing to his traumatised people.
Bishop Edwin de la Peña said reconciliation is vital in Marawi, the city in southern Philippines which was devastated by a five-month siege mounted by Islamist extremists affiliated with Daesh (ISIS).
Speaking barely six weeks on from the Philippines government declaring victory over the terrorists, Bishop de la Peña of Marawi said his task now was to train teenage Muslims in the city to become “peace catalysts” by immunising them against what he called “the persuasive tentacles of extremism”.
The bishop said that – rather than rebuilding his burnt-out cathedral and bishop’s house – his immediate priority is a series of initiatives including drama-based healing sessions for young children and a counselling centre for people traumatised by war.
In his interview with Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, Bishop de la Peña said: “The raison d’etre of the prelature [area of episcopal oversight] has always been to establish dialogue between Muslims and Christians.
“Marawi has always been the showcase of inter-religious harmony here in the Philippines.”
Relations – strained by political and economic – suddenly deteriorated last May when Daesh-affiliated jihadists attacked Marawi in what became the longest urban battle in the modern history of the Philippines.
Up to 20 people were killed, including eight Christians who refused to convert to Islam, and a further 240 were reportedly kidnapped, including Catholic priest Father Teresito Soganub, who was subsequently released.
The jihadists filmed themselves bursting into Marawi’s St Mary’s Cathedral.
They stamped on a picture of Pope Francis and smashed statues and crosses, before setting fire to the building.
Bishop de la Peña said the response of Muslims to the conflict was divided with some Muslims defying the extremists by sheltering Christians targeted by the militants.
But he also said that the local Muslim community resented the Philippine military which they said was responsible for doing the most damage to Marawi by carrying out airstrikes over the city.
He said terrorist groups which survived the war had realised that the best way to prolong any conflict with the government was to take as many hostages as possible – especially Catholic priests and nuns.
Asked about the implications of this threat, the bishop told ACN: “We cannot afford security escorts. We just have to be very careful.”
ACN’s international Secretary General Philipp Ozores, who visited Marawi this month, underlined the importance of Bishop de la Peña’s peace work, saying: “The perception of young Muslims is changing through the bishop’s work.
“We would very much like to keep supporting the mission of the prelature.”
Last September, ACN gave an initial €20,000 (£17,600) for emergency supplies for displaced people in Marawi.
Last month, #RedWednesday, ACN’s international campaign promoting religious freedom, attracted huge support in the Philippines with more than 75 cathedrals and other major churches floodlighting red for the occasion.