'They died for faith': Priests mourn Mass-goers in Jolo bombing

MANILA, Philippines – Father Jeff Nadua, priest at the Jolo Cathedral, remembers the exact pew where Romeo Reyes and his wife usually sat whenever they heard Mass. It was always the 4th pew, right side facing the altar.

That was why after learning that Reyes and his wife perished in the Jolo Cathedral explosions on Sunday, January 27, Nadua had visualized the blast site even without having seen any picture.

Nadua was not at the cathedral when twin explosions killed at least 23 people and injured 109 others during Sunday Mass. The death toll rose on February 4.

The first explosion happened around 8:58 am during the Second Reading, in the first half of this Sunday Catholic service. It was followed by a second explosion at the cathedral's entrance a few seconds later, as soldiers and cops rushed to go inside. (READ: What we know so far: Jolo Cathedral bombing)

"Halos doon mismo, sa blast site mismo, ang inuupuan nila (They were seated near the blast site itself)," Nadua said, referring to the Reyes couple. 

"Nagkaroon ako ng idea saan nilagay ang bomba. Sabi ko sa gitna, malamang sa gitna, sa likuran. Kasi 'yun at 'yun ang inuupuan nila. Kaya sila ang talagang deformed. Lasog-lasog ang katawan," he said in an interview with reporters in Jolo, Sulu, that was aired live on Facebook on Tuesday, January 29. 

(I had an idea where the bomb was placed. I said it was most likely in the middle, at the back. Because that was where they always sat. That was why they were really deformed. Their bodies were mangled.) 

Nadua said the Catholic community in Jolo is so small, they get to be so close.

"I can see their faces, I could remember everything – 'yung ginagawa nila 'pag dumarating sila doon, pagkatapos ng Misa kung ano-ano ang binibigay sa akin, magbebeso. Maliit kasi kami na community kaya you know each person, you know each face, maaalala mo ang tawa nila, maaalala mo ang galaw nila, maaalala mo the way they speak, kung ano ang ginagawa nila, everything," Nadua recalled.

(I can see their faces, I could remember everything – what they do when they get there, the different things they give me after the Mass, how they buss on the cheek. We're a small community so you know each person, you know each face, you remember their laughter, you remember their actions, you remember the way they speak, what they do, everything.)

Nadua said he cannot bear seeing the victims' bodies. "Napakasakit. Hindi ko sila matingnan sa kabaong." (It is so painful. I cannot bear looking at them in their caskets.)

Seat of Catholicism in Jolo

The Jolo Cathedral bombing is symbolic because this church is not an ordinary place of worship.

It is the seat of Catholicism in a place where less than 2% of people belong to the Catholic Church.

(It is called a cathedral, in fact, because it houses the cathedral – the seat of the bishop. There is only one cathedral for every place led by a bishop.)

The Jolo Cathedral, formally known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, has a population of around 14,723, according to the Catholic Directory published by Claretian Publications. 

The Jolo Cathedral is one of 5 parishes in the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo, which covers the whole province of Sulu and the entire province of Tawi-Tawi. 

(Like a diocese, an apostolic vicariate is a grouping of Catholics often spanning towns or cities. An apostolic vicariate, however, "has not yet been established as a diocese due to special circumstances," according to the Code of Canon Law.)

While the Jolo Cathedral is the most populous of the 5 parishes of Jolo and Tawi-Tawi, it is still situated within a Catholic minority.

Only around 29,446 Catholics belong to the Catholic Church in a population of 1,706,068 covered by the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo. 

That is only around 1.7% of the population. Majority of the population belong to Islam.

'They're the true martyrs'

Father Romeo Saniel, apostolic administrator of Jolo, also mourned the Mass-goers who died in the Jolo Cathedral blast. Among them was a former president of their parish pastoral council (PPC).

"Most of those who died were our regular Sunday 8 am Mass-goers. Daisy Barade delos Reyes was formerly the PPC president, Romy Reyes and his Leah were my personal friends. I'm still waiting for the final list of victims," said Saniel in a statement on Sunday.

Referring to those killed in the bombing, Saniel added: "They bravely stayed in Jolo in spite of the threats and insecurities. I believe they have died for their Christian faith. No words can describe the sorrow and pain that we feel these days. May they be given justice in God's time."

Saniel said friends of the victims, both Muslims and Christians, "are mourning and in deep sorrow." He also appealed for prayers "for the families of our young soldiers who died while securing the cathedral."

Like Saniel, Nadua also said his slain parishioners died for their Christian faith.

At times wiping tears during his interview on Tuesday, Nadua said: "Kung 'yung mga pinatay na pari, obispo dito, ay tinatawag nilang martir, paano pa kaya ang mga parishioners na namatay on the day of their worship, na kasasabi lang nila na 'I believe in God,' pagkatapos no'n saka sila namatay? 'Yun ang mga totoong martyrs eh, 'yung mga namatay doon."

(If slain priests and bishops here have been called martyrs, what more the parishioners who died on the day of their worship, that after they said "I believe in God," that was when they died? They're the true martyrs, the ones who died there.)

'Truly satanic act'

Nadua said, however, that the bombing "is not a question about religion," because many of the victims, while Catholics, belong to the Muslim ethnic group called the Tausug. Some of the victims even have Muslim wives or children, he said.

Moving forward, the priest added that his first instinct was to "want revenge" for the victims. "But no," he said, "this is a call for justice." 

Two former shepherds of Jolo also condemned the Jolo Cathedral bombing.

"It is the most heinous desecration of a sacred place, on a sacred day, and at a sacred moment of worship," said Archbishop-elect Angelito Lampon, former bishop of Jolo, and Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, former parish priest of Jolo, in a joint statement on Sunday.

The two religious leaders added, "It is truly a satanic act that all sacred religions must condemn." – Rappler.com