Bishop Angelito Lampon, Vicar Apostolic of Jolo in the southern Philippines, told Aid to the Church in Need, the charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, that Christians in the region are terrified of further violence.
He explained that attacks on Christians by Islamic extremists had continued with alarming regularity since the death in January last year of Father Rey Roda in the Philippines’ Tabawan island, where he had ministered for 20 years.
But Bishop Lampon added that for the time being the situation is “relatively peaceful”, especially on Tabawan, because of Marines now stationed there.
The bishop said that even those priests who previously refused the protection of the security escort “because they felt this was a counter-witness to our presence” have now “been obliged, by force of circumstances [to accept the escort] because they have no other choice.”
With security concerns still high, a night curfew is in place and Church activities have been curtailed, affecting weddings and funerals.
Regular abductions have been carried out and ransoms demanded, with the bishop noting that no Muslim has yet been targeted.
The bishop added that other violent attacks took place sporadically.
In the past month, three mortar bombs were fired in Jolo, one killing several people.
Another damaged the roof of the gymnasium of Notre Dame Boys’ School run by the Marist Brothers and a third exploded near the base of the Marines Third Brigade, close to the bishop’s house.
For several days afterwards, people had to be taken to places of safety every night, such as the classrooms in Notre Dame Boys’ School.
Bishop Lampon stressed the importance of a spiritual response to the crisis: “We have been obliged to take our faith seriously. Whatever may happen, God is there for us.”
“Our faith is no longer only a matter of Sunday churchgoing, nor is it limited to praying novenas, asking for the things we need. Instead it is a daily encounter with God in the events of our everyday life.”
Peace initiatives involving Muslims and Christians have taken place despite obstacles.
The bishop said that in spite of “excellent” relations between the Church and the government, “small groups of Islamic fundamentalists” continued to put up strong resistance.
He added that dialogue is complicated by the lack of central authority or representation among Muslims despite the Islamic Uluma League of the Philippines.
With Fr Roda becoming the third Catholic priest from the region to be killed in 11 years, Bishop Lampon underlined the need to resolve the conflict quickly and tackle the underlying social causes.
The apostolic vicariate of Jolo covers the province of Sulu in the southern Philippines and the province of Tawi Tawi Archipelago made up of 457 Islands.
Catholics there are just over three percent in an overwhelmingly Muslim population.
Jolo made international headlines in January with the abduction of three foreign Red Cross workers. Their fate is still unknown.
ACN Director of Projects Regina Lynch said: “It is regrettable that the media barely notice when native Filipinos are abducted. We call on people around the world not to forget the oppressed Christians in Jolo.”