Before coming to West Bridgford I was working as a vicar in the Philippines. Based in Cebu in the Visaya’s region I had a number of responsibilities. One of these was pastoring a small congregation of Episcopalians who had resettled in Cebu from Cotabato city in the south. Cotabato is one of the largest cities in Mindanao a large landmass that is home to most of the Philippines 15% Muslims. For many years an armed conflict has simmered between those seeking a Muslim independent state in the south, and the predominantly Christian Filipino armed forces. Similar conflicts can be found across SE Asia – Thailand, East Timor and Sri Lanka spring to mind. As you travel deeper into rural areas in Mindanao, you travel further from the rule of law and order and into an increasingly divided land. Christian and Muslim villages nestle side by side. One with a mosque the other a church. One farms pigs the other does not, otherwise there will be little difference between them to the outsider, yet those who are intent of violence will exploit local tensions for their own ends. My Episcopal friends spoke of leaving Cotabato in order to find new lives for themselves and their children. They would speak of sectarian murders, land grabs corruption and persecution at many levels of society.
During my time in Cebu I was part of the Episcopal Diocese of the Southern Philippines and travelled several times to see my bishop who was based at the Cathedral in Cebu. Always hospitable I stayed in his home and had the run of the cathedral compound. But we had to be careful though. Exploring Cotabato alone was discouraged, Western missionaries and Catholic priests have been kidnapped for ransom in Mindanao. Flying into the city you discover the airport is located in the centre of an army base to discourage terrorist attacks. Roadblock security checks are frequent. I thought of ‘my’ bishop Bustamente and is son whose room I used to stay in this last week when I heard of a bomb attack at Cotabato’s catholic cathedral this weekend.
The archbishop was delivering a sermon about peacemakers when a powerful explosion ripped through a nearby store selling roasted pigs, rocking the packed cathedral.
Churchgoers screamed and rushed to the altar. Others fell, wounded or dying, including a woman lechon vendor whose arm was torn off.
In the bloodiest of a spate of bomb attacks that have rocked parts of Mindanao in recent weeks, five people were killed and about 45 wounded Sunday when a homemade bomb tore through the lechon store outside the Cotabato Immaculate Conception Cathedral.
A fuller report can be found here. Time will tell whether this was a ‘rogue’ attack by a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation front, or whether this marks a new phase in the conflict. I’m praying for peace in the Philippines, in the fullest meaning of the word – a cessation of hostilities and an experience of harmony and well being.