Church in troubled southern Philippines continues normal activities

MANILA, Philippines – The Jolo vicariate in the southern Philippines plans to go ahead with Holy Week activities despite the state of emergency declared in Sulu province because of a hostage crisis.

Bishop Angelito Lampon said on church-run Radyo Veritas April 1 that his vicariate would conduct the activities under military guard but with “some adjustments” to comply with emergency measures put into effect the previous day. The Asian church news agency UCA News reported on the bishop’s comments.

Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan announced the state of emergency minutes after the 2 p.m. deadline that an extremist group, Abu Sayyaf, had set for government forces to leave five Sulu towns. The group, which has been fighting for a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines, threatened to behead one of three hostages if the demand was not met.

The three Red Cross workers – Andreas Notter of Switzerland, Eugenio Vagni of Italy and Jean Lacaba of the Philippines – were kidnapped Jan. 15 from the town of Patikul after they had visited a local prison.

No execution has been reported. But as of April 2, Richard Gordon, chairman of the Red Cross in the Philippines, said the organization had not received proof that the hostages were still alive, reported UCA News. Gordon said they are in the forested area of Indanan.

Bishop Lampon said a 9 p.m-4 a.m. curfew has been implemented in Jolo, the capital of Sulu.

“There are checkpoints around our vicinity,” and security forces are “checking for armed groups,” he said.

However, he described church life there as “normal.”

The vicariate had coordinated with the police and military for security during the upcoming celebrations, he said. And at least four soldiers, working as a team, are taking turns guarding Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral.

“As much as possible, we will hold our activities during the day,” the bishop said. However, when celebrations have to be held at other times, such as the Easter Vigil, “we ask for security.”

The bishop said Mass attendance could be less than usual, noting it would be understandable if people did not come to church for the Easter Vigil “because of this tension.”

He added that broadcasting religious services over church-run radio stations is a possibility. The vicariate operates radio stations in Jolo and Bongao, in neighboring Tawi-Tawi province.

The vicariate covers the two predominantly Muslim provinces, where only 2 percent of the more than 1.1 million people are Catholics.

The vicariate is represented on the Sulu provincial peace council, which made the decision on the state of emergency. The council also decided to allow authorities to search houses with “suspicious movements” after obtaining official search warrants, UCA News reported.

Some people have expressed concern the military would abuse its power during the state of emergency, while others view the measure as a way of possibly ending the hostage crisis.

In his Radyo Veritas interview, Bishop Lampon said priests could go and celebrate Mass in Abu Sayyaf stronghold areas if they were under the protection of the military. They might also go with Red Cross groups, who have military escorts, to serve the needs of Catholics, he added.

He stressed that prayer, not guns, will cause a “change of heart” in people, including Abu Sayyaf members.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.