ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — Amid the deadly urban fighting that has broken out between armed rebels and government police and military forces in the southern Philippines, the Catholic Church in Zamboanga City has struggled to shelter and feed thousands of displaced residents while calling for peace.

Nearly 100 people have been killed and hundreds more have been held hostage or used as human shields since a rebel Muslim group began hostilities in early September. Among the first hostages taken were a priest and a local police chief, who later were released.

Hundreds of persons have sought temporary shelter in the walled complex of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which is protected by the national government’s military forces. About 13,000 others are relying on daily food distributions and deliveries organized by Church officials and volunteers, according to Msgr. Chrisologo Manongas, administrator of the Archdiocese of Zamboanga.

“We are dealing with the humanitarian crisis as best we can,” he told the Register in a Sept. 17 phone interview. “The archdiocese is taking care of 11 evacuation centers, which have about 12,000 people. In addition, we are cooking and delivering food to about 1,000 homes of families that are trapped in the fighting area.”

The bishops’ residence, Catholic schools and parish churches are all being used as shelters. The city has also opened a sports complex to accommodate tens of thousands of other evacuees.

 

Neighborhoods Destroyed

Msgr. Manongas, who has served as archdiocesan administrator for more than a year since the former archbishop was appointed to a neighboring archdiocese, lamented that many evacuees have lost homes because  rebels have set fire to entire city streets.

Mass attendance has been lower than usual, since people are afraid to go into the streets in most neighborhoods, and commercial activity has ground to a near halt, he noted. Police have assigned armed guards to accompany the priest when he visits the evacuation centers or leaves the cathedral complex for other pastoral duties.

“Still, we had nine of the usual 11 Masses for Sunday [Sept. 15],” he said. “We could hear the gunshots not too far away. We were about 300 to 400 meters from the fighting. Sometimes stray bullets come by.”

News reports from the Philippines indicate that government forces have attempted to reclaim rebel-held areas with helicopter attacks from the air and mortar shelling from the ground. In some cases, fire trucks have been prevented from extinguishing blazes due to heavy crossfire.

Msgr. Manongas said that the priest who was held hostage at the beginning of the hostilities, Father Michael Ufana, was released on the condition that he would serve as a courier for negotiations between the rebels and the government. “He wanted to go back, but the police told him that it was too dangerous,” said Msgr. Manongas.

Members of the many Knights of Columbus councils in the area have been helping in the relief efforts and volunteering on neighborhood-watch duties.

Balbino Fauni, regional deputy for the Knights, said that he has asked all councils in his jurisdiction to take up collections to help families who have been evacuated and to buy food and other supplies for the needy. “As Knights, we are doing what we can in each neighborhood to help,” Fauni said.

 

A History of Rebel Strife

Located on a peninsula in the southernmost portion of the Philippines that points toward Indonesia, Zamboanga City is home to more than 800,000 residents. Known as the City of Flowers, it is the area’s major fishing and commercial center.

The rebels are a part of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a Muslim group that for decades has demanded an autonomous political region within the majority Catholic nation. Past hostilities officially ended with a peace accord in the 1990s, though splinter groups have kept up attacks throughout the region.

Although at least three priests with expertise in conflict resolution are involved in the current peace negotiations between the rebels and the Philippine government, Msgr. Manongas told the Register that he is not directly involved in the process.

“I prefer to stay out of the peace negotiations because we are trying our best to prevent the interpretation that this is a religious war,” he said. “The fact is that there is no religious conflict here. It is a conflict over power and control of this region that involves the rebels and the government, and there had been no fighting at all for the past two years.”

He pointed out that Muslim residents have been injured or forced to flee their homes along with their Catholic neighbors during attacks on neighborhoods. “As the Catholic Church, we are concerned for all those who are suffering and are providing humanitarian aid to all, whatever religion,” he said.

 

Praying for Peace

Msgr. Manongas issued a statement on Sept. 10, calling for peace and assistance for those affected.

“The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Zamboanga joins her voice to the many voices echoed crying for peace in our beloved city,” the statement read. “We call on Zamboanga Catholics and all men and women of goodwill to join us in witnessing to the hope that we have in our hearts for peace in our city.”

The bishops of the country’s southern region also issued a statement expressing “solidarity with all those affected, Muslims and Christians alike.” The statement added: “We condemn the terror that has been inflicted on an entire city. We condemn the inhumane act of using hostages as human shields. We appeal to the government, NGOs, religious groups and civil society to provide assistance to evacuees.”

Said Msgr. Manongas, “We pray constantly, and we work in whatever way we can, that peace will come, and people can return to their homes and families.”

Maria Caulfield writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.