Islamist extremists try to create chaos and interreligious tension in the Philippines

LAST MONTH, on Jan. 27, 2019, two bombs exploded at the Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, in the Sulu archipelago in the Philippines, which is situated between the islands of Mindanao and Borneo (Indonesia). The attack killed 23 people and injured 112 others. On January 30, there was a grenade attack on a mosque in Zamboanga, west of Mindanao. Father Sebastiano d’Ambra, a missionary of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME) who has been promoting Muslim-Christian dialogue in the Philippines for 40 years, spoke with Aid to the  Church in Need about the situation in the country.

Inside the Cathedral of Mount Carmel

Can you tell us what happened on January 27th?

We were naturally shocked by the violence of the attack and by the fact that it targeted a sacred place. Unfortunately, this act of violence took place in a context of growing tensions in the area. In recent years, Islamic radicalism has been on the rise. And the Christian minority on the island of Jolo (who make up just one percent of the total population of 120,000 people) are not the only victims; there are also Muslims who tell me: “Father, we too are threatened because we are not the same kind of Muslims as they are.”

Three days after the attack on the cathedral, a grenade claimed two lives at a mosque in Zamboanga, in the southern Philippines where you work. Are you afraid of interreligious violence?

I do not think we should make a connection between the two attacks. I cannot imagine Christians wishing to avenge their dead by attacking a Muslim place of worship. On the other hand, I do believe that this is once again the work of those extremist groups whose violence is on the increase and who are sowing confusion. They want to divide Christians and Muslims and take advantage of the situation to provoke chaos throughout the country and destroy peace—a peace is largely based on relations between believers of different religions.

According to the authorities, the war against Islamic terrorism is being won. Do you share this analysis?

No, not at all. Unfortunately, interreligious tension is present. The fact that the heads of extremist groups have been executed does not mean that the Philippine government is winning the war; that is a mistake. I know that the army is doing what it can to control these groups, but I do not think that’s enough. Groups such as ISIS, Maute or Abu Sayyaf share the goal of causing trouble in the country and may gain more strength in the times to come. I don’t say we have to live in fear, but we have to be realistic, and I don’t see them defeated. I believe they will continue to test the friendship we have with our Muslim neighbors.

Is your life in danger?

I’ve been living here for 40 forty years, so I’ve had a lot of time to be a target. Once I was ambushed, and the bullet intended for me killed one of my friends. At that time, I was mediating talks with the Muslim rebels. The fact that a priest was working among those groups for almost three years was an unusual experience. We had managed to establish a relationship of mutual respect and I suppose that the idea that one priest alone could be more effective than a thousand soldiers in making peace must have surprised those who did not want the end of the conflict. This attitude is repeated today. Some Muslims tell us that our programs for dialogue between Christians and Muslims are not to the liking of extremists.