Bishops visit Marawi church before demolition

MANILA, Philippines – For what could be the last time, Marawi bishop Edwin de la Peña and 6 other Catholic bishops from Mindanao prayed inside the Saint Mary's Cathedral in the Muslim city of Marawi. 

They were escorted by the military on Saturday, April 14, to say goodbye. The church that local terrorist groups desecrated during the siege is among the structures inside the former battle area that will be demolished.

The roof hardly offered shade anymore. The walls were riddled with bullet holes. Many of the statues were broken, including the image of Jesus Christ on the cross at the altar. The church pews, too, were in various states of disarray.

"Some bishops went with us to ground zero to see it for the last time before it is demolished.... It was a good opportunity for the bishops to extend to us their spirit of solidarity," De la Peña told Rappler in a phone interview on Monday, April 16.

It was De la Peña's 3rd visit to the church since the war ended. But for the other bishops who accompanied him, it was the first and last.

"Every time I visited, the whole structure looked even worse," De la Peña said.

"I feel so bad about it. It will be demolished soon. You feel so sentimental about it. Maybe you won't see it anymore. Lahat naman yata ile-level (I think all the structures will be leveled)," he said. 

On Tuesday, April 17, church staff will go back to collect the statues and other church properties inside the cathedral. De la Peña himself has not seen his former residence, where church files were stored. 

De la Peña was accompanied by the following Church personalities during the visit:

De la Peña said he hopes to visit again, if the military will allow it, before the demolition starts. "We have some connections. They are very accommodating," he said.

June demolition

De la Peña said the government had informed them that the church would be among the structures to be demolished in June. 

He said they could sign a waiver if the church chooses to arrange for the demolition of the structure, but they decided to let the government do it.

"We can sign a waiver that, if we don't allow it to be demolished now, when the time comes, we would be the ones to take care of its demolition anyway. That will entail cost. So we didn't insist anymore that we would do it ourselves," he said in a mix of English and Filipino. 

Local terrorist groups desecrated the church at the height of the siege as shown in a propaganda video they circulated then.

It was also at the adjacent bishop's residence where De la Peña's right-hand-man, Father Teresito "Chito" Soganub, was taken on the day the battle erupted on May 23, 2017. He and parishioners were preparing for the feast of Saint Mary, which coincided with preparations for last year's Ramadan.

Soganub was held captive for 4 months before he was rescued in September 2017, a month before the battle ended. (READ: Marawi priest Chito Soganub says captivity a 'test of faith')

Duyog Marawi's assistance

The visit of the Mindanao bishops came after they discussed "very urgent matters" in meetings in Cagayan de Oro and Bukidnon. 

"We also met with our counterpart Muslim religious leaders to discuss what we can do to hasten the rehabilitation. We can work together," De la Peña said. 

De la Peña said they would focus on helping the community rebuild. (READ: Marawi rehab chief seeks to ease fears of land grabbing)

Duyog Marawi is a rehabilitation program of the prelature and the Redemptorist missionaries. It is supported by Caritas, faith-based organizations, and other humanitarian aid groups.

“We will rebuild the cathedral, but only after they have rebuilt their city and their Masjids. For the meantime, we focus our energies on rebuilding communities," De la Peña said.

MILITARY ESCORT. Marawi Bishop Edwin de la Peu00f1a hopes to return again before the scheduled demolition of the church in June. Photo courtesy of DUYOG MARAWI

MILITARY ESCORT. Marawi Bishop Edwin de la Peu00f1a hopes to return again before the scheduled demolition of the church in June.

Photo courtesy of DUYOG MARAWI

“It was both a symbol of solidarity of the whole Mindanao Church with the Marawi prelature and at the same time a symbolic blessing and prayer for peace,” said Rey Barnido, executive director of Duyog Marawi.

Soganub himself, before his capture, was actively promoting good relations between Muslims and Christians in the city. (READ: Chito Soganub: Hostage-priest in Marawi often mistaken for Muslim)

"From the debris will rise a simple church that aims to symbolize the prelature’s mission of reconciling presence in Marawi," Barnido said. 

Watch a video report on Soganub's ordeal below:

TOP PHOTO: BATTLE-SCARRED. Rappler correspondent Bobby Lagsa took this photo of the Saint Mary's Parish on April 12, 2018, when he and the author of this article were allowed inside the battle area. The rest of the photos were provided by Duyog Marawi.