JOLO, Philippines — The quest for lasting peace in parts of the southern Philippines remained elusive with the Jan. 27 twin bombings in Jolo, the capital of Sulu island.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for both blasts, the first inside Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral during Sunday Mass and the second at the cathedral entrance as members of the Philippine military rushed to help the victims.
As of Feb. 1, the bombings left 22 dead and more than 100 hurt, many with serious injuries. The attacks are considered among the deadliest to hit the region in years. Funerals for the dead were attended by both Christians and Muslims.
“The people of Jolo — both Christians and Muslims — are still mourning the sudden deaths of their relatives and friends,” said Msgr. Pedro Quitorio, the director of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) Media Office. “The Catholic Vicariate of Jolo was the first responder and has been assisting the victims,” he added.
The CBCP issued a statement that reads, in part, “We condole with the families of the several soldiers and civilians who were killed by the explosions. We also express our sympathies with those who were wounded and extend our solidarity with the rest of the churchgoers inside the cathedral and the rest of the Church community in the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo.”
In the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, the southern island group of Mindanao, which includes Sulu island, has a large population of Muslims.
For decades, parts of Mindanao have been racked by periods of violence by fundamentalist Islamic attacks. The conflict goes as far back as the 1960s, when the Muslims in the south sought to unite and secede from the Philippine government.
In 1972-73, violence erupted in the region, particularly when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. The conflict continued, and repeated attempts to negotiate peace broke down. It was not until 1996 that a meaningful agreement was drawn, although the peace accord did not stop the emergence of radical Muslim groups.
Many local and international media outlets have identified the town of Jolo as a base for militant Islamists and terrorist groups, including Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaida affiliate. Abu Sayyaf has been responsible for many attacks, one of which was the 2004 bombing and sinking of a large ferry in Manila Bay, which killed 116 people, including 15 children.
According to Msgr. Quitorio, the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo has only five parishes and about 29,500 Catholics, making up roughly 2% of the population. Jolo has been attacked several times in recent years; the cathedral was the target of at least nine attacks since 1997, when Bishop Benjamin de Jesus was shot and killed just outside the cathedral.
In 2009 alone, three separate bombings occurred in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral, resulting in at least six dead and dozens injured.
“Except for the fundamentalists, regular Muslims have been living in peaceful coexistence with Catholics for many decades now,” said Msgr. Quitorio.
The Bishops’ Response
The Philippine bishops condemned the attacks, referring to “this act of terrorism that has taken place only a few days after the plebiscite on the Bangsamoro Organic Law.”
The law the bishops referred to is the result of a successful Jan. 21 referendum, which created a new autonomous political entity, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The proposition was accepted by voters in most of the provinces that will be included in the Bangsamoro region, but was rejected by voters in the town of Jolo and elsewhere in the Sulu province.
Shortly before the referendum, the Mindanao Catholic bishops, led by Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, released a statement that read, “After many failed attempts, this may be the last concrete chance for a just and lasting peace in Mindanao.” While many Philippine bishops believe that the creation of the new entity of BARRM will bring an end to the decades-old conflict in Mindanao, a few remained skeptical and refused to sign the statement.
Cardinal Quevedo himself has strong ties to Jolo; he once served as parish priest of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral.
After serving 20 years as archbishop of Cotabato, not far from Sulu province, he retired in November 2018 and was replaced by Archbishop Angelito Lampon, who was installed Jan. 30 under heightened security. Archbishop Lampon also served in Jolo as the apostolic vicar from 1997 to November 2018, when Pope Francis appointed him as the archbishop of Cotabato.
As he celebrated Word Youth Day in Panama last month, Pope Francis himself condemned the attack and offered prayers, saying, “To Christ and to the Virgin we also entrust the victims of the terrorist attack … in the Cathedral of Jolo in the Philippines while the Eucharist was being celebrated. I reiterate my firm reprobation for this episode of violence, which puts this Christian community in mourning again, and I elevate my prayers for the deceased and for the wounded.”
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been at odds with the Catholic Church, also denounced the attack. A statement from the president’s office read, “We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars. The law will give them no mercy.”