Marawi (AsiaNews/CBCPNews) – Mgr Edwin Dela Peña, bishop of Marawi (Mindanao), was able to enter and pray inside St Mary’s Cathedral for the first time on Thursday since Islamic State-linked terrorists seized the city in May 2017, starting a siege that lasted five months.
Members of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf terrorist groups had attacked the cathedral at the start of the conflict, which devastated the provincial capital of the southern province of Lanao del Sur.
Philippine Armed Forces retook the building on 28 August, but found it severely damaged by the terrorists who had posted a video of their desecration.
When they attacked, the Islamists abducted some worshippers and the vicar general of the church, Fr Terence “Chito” Suganob. The latter was held hostage for four months.
After various attempts, the bishop was able to visit the ruined city centre and the cathedral, an experience that for him was “heart-breaking”.
It was a “very emotional” day. “So many memories. We were the ones who built this. Now, everything is destroyed, even the trees we planted are riddled with damage from bullets and mortar,” he explained.
Along with officials from the Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and the Order of Malta Philippines, the prelate entered the “ground zero” of the fighting between government forces and the terrorists.
At one point, he asked the delegation to gather in a circle at the altar, hold hands and then led a prayer.
Once home to 200,000 people, the mostly Islamic city was ravaged by air strikes. Fighting killed at least 1,131 people, including 919 rebels and 165 soldiers and policemen.
Mgr Dela Peña, who launched Duyog Marawi, a plan aimed at reconstruction, healing and promoting peace in the devastated city, reiterated that now his priority was to improve inter-faith relations and bring relief to traumatised residents.
Whilst rebuilding the cathedral is important, forging peace, stronger ties and reconciliation among Christians and Muslims was paramount.
“I feel hopeful that people will help us rebuild the cathedral. But my priority is not the building but the needs of the community,” he said.
Priests, nuns, lay people working for Caritas, as well as young Muslim volunteers from Marawi are involved in the programme.
For the past three months, these volunteers have reached out to the war-affected communities and internally displaced people, bringing aid and comfort.