Muslim Militants Target Clergy in Philippines

Sarah Page

Murderer who sought forgiveness to visit victim’s grave on Monday.

DUBLIN – In the midst of recent threats of violence against clergy in the Philippines, one repentant murderer next week will express his remorse by visiting the grave of the priest he killed.

Norberto Manero Jr. spent almost 23 years in prison for murdering Catholic Father Tulio Favali in 1985. Granted a pardon and released last Friday (January 25) – just 10 days after the latest murder by Muslim militants of a Catholic clergyman, Father Reynaldo Albores Roda – Manero plans to visit Fr. Favali’s grave in Kidapawan, southern Mindanao on Monday (February 4).

Father Peter Geremia, a fellow missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) and the original target of Manero’s murder operation, will be present at the grave site along with other priests from the diocese.

Authorities released Manero after the Philippine government granted him a pardon with the consent of Kidapawan Bishop Romulo Valles and other church members.

The graveside reflection may touch raw nerves as the Catholic community is still recovering from the shock of the murder of Fr. Roda, shot by Muslim militants on the island of Tawi-Tawi on January 15.

Fr. Roda’s death was the latest in a series of attacks on church leaders in recent years by a complex array of splinter groups fighting for independence from the central government. The issues for the Islamic attackers are both political and spiritual; the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), one of the largest groups, wants not only political autonomy but the ability to govern by sharia or Islamic law.

The convicted murderer of Fr. Favali, Manero, wrote to Bishop Valles from prison in 2004, begging forgiveness and help to regain freedom. Then-president Joseph Estrada had granted Manero a pardon in 1999 but revoked it after a public outcry. New rules since then require the consent of aggrieved parties in order for a presidential pardon to be granted.

Valles and other members of Fr. Favali’s diocese agreed to Manero’s release under strict conditions. Manero first had to agree not to threaten or harm anyone connected to Fr. Favali, nor cooperate with fringe groups. He also agreed to reveal the circumstances surrounding the case of mistaken identity that led to the death of Fr. Favali in place of Fr. Geremia.

Death of ‘Fr. Rey’

On January 15, 10 armed men broke into the Notre Dame convent school in Tabawan, Tawi-Tawi, run by Fr. Roda – popularly known as “Fr. Rey.” They dragged Fr. Roda and a Muslim teacher, Omar Taub, out to the schoolyard. When Fr. Roda fought with the gunmen, they shot him several times and escaped with Taub.

Local media reports said police were following leads but had not yet located the kidnappers.

Fr. Roda belonged to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, an order formed to work among the poor. OMI missionaries in Mindanao were not there to convert Muslims but to “create a world that is more peaceful and just,” Cotabato Bishop Orlando Quevedo said in the funeral address. “That is at the heart of the missions in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi … because such a world is a fuller reflection of the universal reign of God.”

Fellow priests from the Jesuit-Oblate-Marist Network published a statement this week claiming Fr. Roda had worked selflessly for solidarity and peace among Muslims and Christians in Tabawan, pioneering a number of development and livelihood projects for people of both faiths.

Fr. Roda was recently offered a transfer after receiving death threats but refused, according to an Asia News report. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said in a statement that the death threats came from the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group.

A contingent of Philippine marines was sent to secure the town following Fr. Roda’s death. A report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer said residents feared retaliatory attacks from the murderers after witnesses identified two of them in statements to police.

Fr. Roda joins two other Catholic priests murdered on the islands of Tawi-Tawi and Sulu in recent years; Father Benjamin Inocencio in 2000 and Bishop Benjamin de Jesus in 1997.

Risks of Christian Leadership

At least 26 priests have reportedly been killed, kidnapped or injured in attacks since 2001.

On Monday (January 28), Father Giancarlo Bossi – a PIME missionary kidnapped by militants in June last year and released 40 days later – returned to the Philippines after a six-month absence.

Fr. Bossi hopes to return to Payao in Zamboanga Sibugay, but “it may not be that easy,” a representative of the CBCP has stated. The PIME council will first assess the risks; officials have repeatedly warned foreign missionaries to take extra precautions in the troubled south.

With threats growing against Christian clergy in the south, many are increasingly being assigned soldiers as bodyguards. Police in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao last week reportedly confirmed threats against local and foreign Catholic priests in some areas of the region. At press time, armed soldiers were reportedly taking up positions outside some churches to protect against attacks.

On March 10, 2007, a fire in the southern Philippine town of Laminusa destroyed 15 houses, 11 of them belonging to converts from Islam, and killed an elderly woman and a 5-year-old girl, according to Christian support organization Open Doors. In 2006, three men gunned down pastor Mocsin L. Hasim of Zamboanga, southern Philippines, and his 22-year-old daughter Mercilyn on June 3.

Hasim, with the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church of the Philippines, was involved with ministry to Muslims.

In the eastern province of Leyte, on January 23 a 60-year-old leader at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, Felicisimo Catambis, was shot to death – reportedly suffering multiple gunshot wounds in the back from one of two unknown assailants on a motorcycle. Several other members of the church have reportedly been murdered in the last three years.

An investigator said Catambis was not known to be a involved with any militant group, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Religious Roots of Conflict

The southern part of the country, particularly the Bangsamoro Muslims (commonly known as Moros) has resisted non-Islamic influences for at least 300 years. The Philippine government established an Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao in 1987, but the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and other armed groups rejected this measure and returned to armed struggle.

Peace talks between the government and an MNLF split-off, the MILF, stalled recently, with a Malaysian-backed peace monitoring team threatening to leave the country if an agreement is not reached this year. The MILF has threatened further violence if the Malaysian peace team withdraws.

Guiamel, a Mindanao resident interviewed by the Philippines International Review identified only by a single name, said religion was definitely a factor in the conflict. “Among Muslims there is still apprehension that the missionary work of the church is partly Christianizing Muslims,” he said. “So there is … ongoing mistrust because of unresolved prejudices.”

Guiamel – who attended a Catholic university and has since faced discrimination because he was “with the priests” – said the fact that Christian schools now provide a prayer room for Muslim students is a “victory of the struggle of the Moro people.”

In 1984, a year before Fr. Favali was murdered, PIME missionary Father Sebastiano D’Ambra founded Silsilah, meaning “chain,” indicating a chain of events bringing man ever closer to God. The hope was to facilitate peace between Muslims and Christians.

This January, a Christian and a Muslim were chosen to take over the leadership of Silsilah and intensify initiatives to promote peace.

The tangled frame of Fr. Favali’s motorbike, set alight by Manero, still remains on the grounds of the cemetery. As Manero and Fr. Geremia meet at Fr. Favali’s graveside, an opportunity for peace beckons.

SIDEBAR: Historical Roots of Muslim Conflict in Southern Philippines

Before the Spanish colonial period, Muslim sultans reigned over the islands of Mindanao. Invading Spanish explorers usurped the sultans’ power, then in 1898 the Spanish handed the islands to the United States, which in 1946 turned them back to the Philippines’ newly formed republican government.

During the colonial period, the Bangsamoros or Muslim people of the islands felt increasingly marginalized. Irritation grew as the government encouraged Christians from other parts of the Philippines to migrate to the resource-rich islands of Mindanao in the 1950s and ‘60s. The Muslim Moros, as they are known colloquially, now make up just 20 percent of the population in the south, while Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) make up 75 percent. A third group, the tribal Lumads, follow their own ancestral religions and form just 3 percent of the total.

Muslim resentment over loss of political sovereignty, ancestral lands and economic resources grew until the first Muslim Independence Movement was formed, calling for jihad to defend the Moro homeland.

The Moro National Liberation Front followed in 1972. When the MNLF called for help from Islamic states in the Middle East, the Philippine government agreed to grant limited political autonomy to Muslims within the Philippine state, through an agreement signed in December 1976. But the two sides failed to agree on the implementation of the agreement, and this led to further tension, with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front splitting from the MNLF and declaring all-out war.

According to an article by Philippine news agency ABS-CBN, Christians have formed at least 30 armed vigilante groups in response to the violence. Bishop Antonio Ledesma of Ipil, Mindanao, quoted in the article, said these groups were not truly representative of the Christian community. Muslim clerics hold that the same is true for Muslim rebel groups.

Unfortunately for both sides, “Religious extremism … is a reality that people in the islands live with daily,” Ledesma said.

Copyright 2008 Compass Direct News

Originally published February 01, 2008.

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