Philippines: Displaced Christians Reluctant to Return to Marawi

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Froilan Gallardo and Jeoffrey Maitem
Marawi and Cotabato City, Philippines

Minority Christians uprooted by last year’s bloody siege of Marawi city by pro-Islamic State gunmen say they are reluctant to return there, while a spate of militant attacks has hit the southern Philippines as the anniversary of the takeover approaches.

The most recent attacks – all within the past three days – involved the abduction of four people, including two policewomen, and the killing of three soldiers by forces loyal to slain Filipino IS leader Isnilon Hapilon, the military said.

Meanwhile, more than six months after Philippine government forces liberated Marawi – the only Islamic city in the Philippines – from the militants, the tiny Catholic and Protestant congregation appear to be hesitant to return to the devastated area. Before the siege began on May 23, 2017, Christians comprised only about 2 percent of the city’s 200,000 people.

“What is there to return to if the rest of the Marawi residents are not yet allowed to return?” said Fedelinda Tawagon, president of Dansalan College, a Protestant-led school in Marawi.

“Everything was destroyed. All buildings are gone,” she said, referring to the18 buildings that once stood on the school’s five-hectare (12.3-acre) compound, including a four-story structure housing classrooms.  

The military had allowed school officials to return to the site twice in November last year and in February, she said.

Rebuilding the school will be far too costly, Tawagon said. The college had submitted a reconstruction plan to the government that partly asks for compensation instead of a plot of land that the school owned and on which the military said it planned to build a camp.

“Naturally we want to be compensated because that land is legally registered to the school. We owned that land,” Tawagon said. The school has not yet heard back from the government.

In 1950, an American missionary, Frank Laubauch founded Dansalan College. It started out as a library and then a classroom for Muslim students. Before last year’s siege, Dansalan College enrolled 4,000 students, a majority of them Muslims.

Omarkhayyam Maute, one of Filipino Muslims who helped plot the militant siege and was later killed along with Hapilon, was a graduate of the school. 

Troops have virtually cleared Dansalan College and another Christian site in the city, St. Mary’s Cathedral, of improvised bombs, according to Felix Castro, field manager of Task Force Bangon Marawi.

“It’s 80 percent free of small unexploded ordnance and we already allowed the bishops to visit the Cathedral and a religious congregation to see Dansalan College,” Castro told BenarNews.

‘Very sad to see what happened’

However, the cathedral, which was badly damaged during the five-month siege, has now been slated for demolition, church officials said.

Rey Barnido, head of Duyog Marawi, a local group that oversees a Catholic reunification program, said some senior Catholic clerics cried when a delegation of bishops visited the ruined cathedral in March.

“One of the bishops knelt on the ground. It was very sad to see what happened to the church,” Barnido said.

Barnido said the bishops later agreed to allow the military to tear down the 84-year-old Cathedral, which until last year, had co-existed peacefully with the Muslim mosques that once dotted the Marawi landscape. The city was heavily bombarded from the air by the Philippine military during the campaign to break the siege.

The fear of reprisals from militants is understandable. Hapilon’s men went house to house last year and killed Christians in Marawi, which the gunmen proclaimed as Islamic State’s new caliphate in Southeast Asia.

While some Christians enjoyed a high status in Marawi society, many of them worked as laborers, store employees or carpenters. Some of them only escaped last year’s carnage by hiding in basements for days or weeks, before fleeing to safety.

The siege ended in October, when Filipino forces, aided by information from U.S. and Australian intelligence, killed Hapilon, Maute and other top militant leaders. However, the government said about 200 or so enemy fighters had escaped and were believed to be hiding out in other areas of the volatile south where sympathizers operate. 

More attacks

Followers of Hapilon, who was a leader of Abu Sayyaf Group (Bearers of the Sword), meanwhile, continued to stage attacks elsewhere in the south.

On Sunday, militants abducted four people, including two policewomen, in the southern island of Jolo, the military said.

Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, the military commander in Jolo, said they had deployed three battalions in the town of Patikul to track down the suspects and their captives.

“They won’t get out of Patikul and, as we speak, we have three battalions looking for them,” Sobejana said. The policewomen were travelling with two civilian men when they were taken near a military camp at gunpoint.

Sobejana said 11 militants, led by one Mujir Yada, carried out the abduction. 

“Rescue efforts are on progress,” Sobejana said, urging the public to report any sighting of the group.

Meanwhile, in Cotabato City, also in the south, members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) rebel group ambushed a special forces battalion on Monday, killing two soldiers, authorities said.

BIFF, a splinter group of the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which signed a peace pact in 2014, is one of nearly two dozen groups that have sworn allegiance to IS. 

BIFF fighters ambushed and killed the two soldiers at dawn on Monday as they were returning on a motorbike to their headquarters from the city’s public market, according to Senior Supt. Rolly Octavio, the police commander in Cotabato City.

“Witnesses said they were tailing the victims from the city’s public market and opened fire from behind when they reached an isolated road,” he said.

BIFF fighters also ambushed and killed a soldier, Corporal Ruel Dordas in the nearby town of Lambayong. A sergeant accompanying him was wounded, the military said.

At the weekend, suspected BIFF fighters also beheaded two Christian farmers and detonated a bomb near a Catholic Church, wounding two civilians.

Mark Navales in Manila contributed to this report.

Copyright ©2017, BenarNews. Used with the permission of BenarNews.