Kidnapped Filipino priest pleads for help in video

.- A week after Islamist militants kidnapped some 240 Catholics in the Philippines, a video has surfaced online showing one of the hostages, Fr. Chito Suganob, calling for the government to halt their military offensive in the city.

Shown wearing a black polo and jeans, Fr. Suganob at the beginning of the 5-minute video lists the other “prisoners of war” taken hostage with him, including several Catholic college students and professors, as well as some 200 others, including women and children.

He speaks directly to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, asking him to withdraw his army from the city and “to stop the airstrikes, and to stop the cannons.”

With a cracked voice, the priest, who is vicar general of the Marawi territorial prelature, asks the president to “please consider us,” saying that “it’s hard” for the hostages to bear, because they can hear gunfire and cannons going off around them.  

The militants, he said, “don’t ask for anything...they just ask that you leave this place peacefully.”

Militants of the Maute group stormed the city of Marawi, on the southern Philippines island Mindanao, May 23. The group, formed in 2012, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015.

The militants' violence began after a failed army and police raid to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a local Islamist leader.

The Maute militants have burned several buildings, including the Catholic cathedral and the bishop’s residence. They are also said to have freed more than 100 inmates from prisons in the city. The fighting has reportedly killed at least 20 people in the city.

The group was blamed for a September 2016 bombing that killed 15 people in southern Davao, the president’s hometown. A military raid on their jungle camp last month reportedly found homemade bombs, grenades, combat uniforms, and passports of suspected Indonesian militants.

The militants have threatened to kill their hostages if the nation's military fails to cease its current offensive against them.

Bishop Edwin de la Peña y Angot, Prelate of Marawi, told CBCP News that he was not home at the time of the attack, but his secretary is reportedly among the hostages.

The bishop said he received a phone call from a militant who used his secretary’s phone. On the other end of the line was a militant who introduced himself as a member of the Islamic State, and demanded a unilateral ceasefire.

Bishop Peña said he was allowed to speak with Fr. Suganob at the time in order to help make their demands clear.

“Mr. President, if you want me to kneel before you just to knock your heart in favor of our families who are crying out there in different places, for our relatives … we will do that,” the priest said.

He warned that the use of violence by the army will only put the lives of the hostages at further risk, since the militants are “ready to die for their religion.”

Speaking directly to Duterte, he stressed that “you can’t use force and violence because they have the commitment they will die for this.”

“Please consider us, we are victims,” he said, explaining that if needed, he would beg for their release and for the army to withdraw.

The video, according to CBCP News, first surfaced on the Facebook account of a user named “Datumasa Khalid.” Although it’s still unclear where the video was filmed, Fr. Suganob is seen standing in front of houses and vehicles that have been destroyed.

According to Philippines station ABS-DBN News, the death toll from fighting in Marawi has risen to 104, including some 65 militants, 20 government forces, and 19 civilians.

Much of the city's population of more than 200,000 has fled the city, though officials believe as many as 2,000 have been trapped by the fighting.

In response, the area’s Caritas branch on May 29 launched a solidarity appeal asking dioceses to contribute what they can to help the displaced. As a start, the charitable organization has offered an initial 300,000 Philippine pesos ($6,000) for relief efforts in nearby Diocese of Iligan.

In the wake of the kidnapping, the Filipino bishops have urged prayers for Fr. Suganob and the other hostages.

While the majority of Filipinos are Catholic, they make up only five percent of the population in Marawi, a mostly Muslim city.

Archbishop Socrates Buenaventura Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the Filipino bishops’ conference, last week urged prayers for peace and asked the militants to show mercy.

“We call on the Maute group that claims to bear arms in the name of a Merciful and Benevolent God – the very same God we Christians worship and adore – to do the One God true honor by the mercy and benevolence that are two of our God’s most exalted attributes,” he said May 24.

The archbishop also addressed the response of government forces, saying, “We beg of them to make the safety of the hostages a primordial consideration.”

Duterte, who has been heavily criticized for a brutal crackdown on illegal drugs, has placed all of Mindanao under martial law.

The president has sought peace talks with two large Muslim rebel groups in the country’s south but has ordered the military to destroy smaller extremist groups like the Maute.

Tags: Philippines, Islamism, Marawi, Mindanao, Territorial Prelature of Marawi, Maute group

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