For the first time since May 23, the day the Maute group laid siege to Marawi City, Mass was celebrated in St. Mary’s Cathedral last Sunday, October 1, with about 300 soldiers taking time off the ongoing war to attend the ceremony.
The walls were pockmarked by bullet holes. The roof over the altar was gone. During the fighting, the Maute group had posted videos showing them destroying religious items and generally desecrating the church. The cathedral, along with mosques in the area, had been used as strongholds of the rebels fighting the advancing troops.
It was at the cathedral where Fr. Teresito Soganub was seized by the rebels and kept hostage along with several other people. St. Mary’s was the parish church for the Catholics who make up 1 percent of Marawi’s 160,000 population. It was accepted as part of the community although it showed no cross outside. “People didn’t want a large symbol,” Father Soganub said.
The Maranaos of Marawi City are one of the three major Muslim groups in Mindanao, the other two being the Maguindanao and the Tausug. Marawi is known as the spiritual center of the Maranaos, whose Muslim moral rules are part of the city code. But the people of Marawi also accepted the Christian church in their midst led by the bearded Father Soganub.
St. Mary’s Cathedral was freed from occupation by the Maute late last August, along with two key Islamic institutions, the Grand Mosque and the Islamic Center. Like the cathedral, the mosques had also been desecrated by the rebels, Joint Task Force Marawi said. But the cathedral was so severely damaged that soldiers had to rebuild some structures and remove unexploded bombs left by the rebels as booby traps.
Even as Mass was celebrated in the cathedral last Sunday, gunfire and explosions could be heard in nearby areas. There had been hope that the Maute rebels could be rooted out of Marawi by last weekend, but the fighting continues to this day. The armed forces have chosen to move with all deliberate speed, so as to keep the destruction and the deaths of both combatants and hostages down.
We have waited 136 days since the fighting began on May 23 and Marawi has been retaken steadily street by street, building by building. The celebration at St. Mary’s was a most significant event in the harrowing story of the Marawi siege. We can wait a few days, even weeks, more, truly confident that it will all soon be over.