MILITANTS linked to Islamic State (IS) in the southern Philippines have taken a priest and some of his parishioners hostage as part of a wave of violence and insurrection in the city of Marawi.
Gunmen from the Islamist Maute group swept into the city on the southern island of Mindanao last week, after a botched government raid that failed to capture a terrorist commander, Isnilon Hapilon, who has pledged allegiance to IS.
In retaliation for the attack, dozens of militants set fire to buildings, raised the black flag of IS, and killed soldiers and civilians. They then stormed the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora and abducted a priest, the Revd Teresito Suganob, and several worshippers.
Fr Suganob appeared in a video released by the militants earlier this week, urging the Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, to withdraw the military from Marawi. Mr Duterte proclaimed martial law across the whole of the Mindanao region in response to the attacks, and has declared that he will be “harsh” towards the terrorists.
Many of the 200,000 people who live in Marawi are believed to have fled the fighting.
In the video, which may have been filmed under duress, Fr Suganob said that he was being held with about 200 other hostages, including some children.
“We want to live another day, we want to live another month,” he said. Addressing Mr Duterte, he said: “We want to live few years and in your generosity, Mr President, in your heart, we know you can make something [happen].”
The President of the RC Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan, the Most Revd Socrates Villegas, condemned the abduction of Fr Suganob: “He was not a combatant. He was not bearing arms. He was a threat to none,” Archbishop Villegas said. “His capture and that of his companions violates every norm of civilised conflict.”
The Archbishop of Cotabato, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, has appealed for Muslims, who make up a significant minority of the population in Mindanao, to persuade the Maute militants to set the hostages free. He said: “I appeal to religious leaders of Islam to influence the hostage-takers to release the hostages unharmed.”
Although an Islamist insurgency based in Mindanao has been waging a campaign against the Philippine authorities for decades, the emergence of IS has galvanised the conflict in recent years.
The Maute group that launched the attack on Marawi is one of several new, smaller armed Islamist organisations that have sprung up and pledged their allegiance to IS.
Mr Duterte was noted while he was the mayor of Davao, the largest city in Mindanao, for his violent crackdowns against drug dealers and criminals. As President, he has sought peace talks with the larger Islamist groups while also launching a new military offensive against the IS-affiliated militants.
On Tuesday, the army’s chief-of-staff, General Eduardo Ano, told the AP news agency that they had now retaken about 70 per cent of Marawi, although about 100 people — civilians, militants, and soldiers — had died so far.
On the same day, the Christian Conference of Asia, an ecumenical group of Churches, released a statement condemning Mr Duterte’s decision to impose martial law, arguing that the curfews, army checkpoints, and other measures would inflame the situation and not deal with the cause of the conflict.