Church leaders in the Philippines have appealed to the armed abductors of over a dozen people, including a Catholic priest, in southern Mindanao islands on 23 May, to spare the lives of the hostages. "I appeal to the consciences of the hostage takers not to harm the innocent as the Islamic faith teaches," said Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato in a statement. Members of the Maute group, which claims to be linked to the international terror group Islamic State, clashed with security forces in Marawi City on May 23, and have taken Father Teresito “Chito” Suganob, vicar of the Prelature of Marawi, and several other people hostage. As of early morning on May 25, nothing had been heard of the whereabouts of the priest and the prelature's staff and some churchgoers who were taken captive.
Cardinal Quevedo also appealed to Muslim religious leaders to intercede with the gunmen, who claimed to be Muslims, for the safety of the hostages who were reportedly used as "human shields" when the militants attacked the city. "I appeal to religious leaders of Islam to influence the hostage takers to release the hostages unharmed," said the Mindanao prelate. He also prayed for the "safety of the innocent people" of Marawi.
Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Manila also issued an appeal "to set the hostages free" as he prayed for the situation in Marawi "to be resolved without any further violence."
The conflict in Marawi started after soldiers and policemen launched an operation aimed at arresting Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf who was reportedly hiding in the city. An ensuing firefight between security forces and members of the Maute group who were protecting Hapilon escalated and spread to several villages in downtown Marawi. Thousands of residents have already fled the city and sought shelter in nearby towns and cities.
Extremists demand unconditional ceasefire
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines said on Thursday the abductors have threatened to kill the hostages if the government assault against them is not withdrawn. Bishop Edwin de la Peña of Marawi Prelature who received a call from an IS militant also said the kidnappers were demanding a “unilateral ceasefire from the military to allow them passage out of Marawi. Otherwise, they will kill the hostages,” Bishop la Peña said. He said he was able to talk with Fr. Chito to make sure that their demands were clearly conveyed.
Filipino Muslim religious leaders condemned what they described as "the barbaric and satanic terror attacks” in Manchester, UK and in Marawi City. "We must face this challenge of violent extremism and terrorism together as one human family facing common enemies — injustices and terrorism," said the Ulama Conference of the Philippines.
The United Religions Initiative, a global community of some 850 interfaith groups in 101 countries, also issued a call for the immediate release of the hostages. The group described Father Suganob as a "long-time leader and an active member" of the organization who works to "help heal lasting wounds of conflict in local communities in Mindanao." Rev. Victor Kazanjian Jr., the group's executive director, said the priest "envision[s] a world in which people of all religions and cultures affirm their common humanity and work together for peace, justice, and healing for the Earth."
The military in Marawi confirmed that five soldiers were killed and 31 others injured in the attack on the city. At least two policemen were also reported killed. Philippine authorities refuse to release the number of casualties and fatalities as "clearing operations" continue. (Source: UCAN)