Bishops, priests, and religious on the island of Jolo in the Philippines are now under military protection following a series of murders and kidnappings committed by Muslim militants targeting Church personnel, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reports.
Bishop Angelito Lampon, the Apostolic Vicar of Jolo, spoke to ACN about conditions on Jolo, an island in the Sulu Archipelago in the southwest Philippines.
Bishop Lampon said that he had to build a guardhouse in front of the gate of his episcopal residence because of the security concerns. He cited the murder of Father Rey Roda, who was shot dead by armed Muslim men this past January, as an example of the worsening security situation.
The islands of Jolo and Basilan are considered strongholds of the Abu Sayaff (Bearers of the Sword) guerillas, an Islamic jihadist group that the international community and the Filipino people consider to be terrorists
Though there are sometimes serious acts of violence, there are also many minor daily acts of hostility. Bishop Lampon said that a Muslim mother might sweep her yard, but dump the rubbish in front of the door of her Christian neighbor. The bishop also related how he has been abused and spat upon in the street when he was in clerical dress.
The bishop said that political leaders have "no interest in the common good in their hearts." He said only a handful of people have broken through the entrenched individualistic and clannish attitudes of the region.
Despite the violence and hostility, Christian charity work continues in Jolo. Bishop Lampon said that Christians have been commanded to "to forgive seventy times seven times" and to reach out to others with "a hand of friendship and reconciliation."
The Catholic Church in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi has initiated numerous projects to benefit the population, which is 97 percent Muslim. The Church helps provide education, housing, healthcare, and micro-finance programs for the poor. On the island of Jolo, a Church initiative has built over 3,000 low-cost housing units for the poor.
Bishop Lampon stressed that the Church’s faith in Jesus Christ makes her determined to hold out in Jolo. It is good that the Church could provide humanitarian aid, but this alone is not enough to justify her continued presence here, the bishop explained. He said that Catholics in Jolo pray for peace and reconciliation at every Mass after Holy Communion, drawing hope above all from their belief that “evil will not have the last word.”
Catholics on the island also hope that the life of Bishop Lampon’s predecessor, Bishop Ben de Jesus, will continue to bear good fruit. Bishop de Jesus was murdered in front of his cathedral on February 4, 1997. Catholics pray that "the noble sacrifice of his life and death inspire the political leaders, the people of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi and the entire nation to fight, to work and to pray for peace."
Bishop Ben de Jesus had died "so that we could live in peace," said Bishop Lampon. He said that Catholics offer up everything they have for unity and for the healing of divisions between members of various religions, cultures, and tribes.