ILIGAN CITY: Islamist militants who triggered martial law in southern Philippines when they rampaged through a majority Muslim city are threatening to kill a priest and other hostages, the Catholic Church said Wednesday.
The gunmen raided a church in Marawi City and took the local priest, Fr. Chito Suganob, and churchgoers hostage, according to the head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Philippines, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas.
“They have threatened to kill the hostages if the government forces unleashed against them are not recalled,” Villegas said in a statement.
A regional military spokeswoman said Villegas’s report had yet to be verified.
Thousands of residents fled Marawi, according to an AFP photographer at a military checkpoint near Iligan, the next biggest city about 40 kilometers away.
“We heard a lot of gunfire and explosions yesterday. We hid inside, we were too frightened to go out,” Noraisa Duca, a Muslim resident of Marawi, told AFP at the checkpoint.
Non-Muslims, particularly Roman Catholics, were prioritized in evacuation efforts by the provincial government of Lanao del Sur amid threats of killings by the terrorist Maute group in Marawi City.
“Our priority is the evacuation of Christian residents of Marawi…We have received unconfirmed information that the Maute group will execute them,” Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao Vice Governor Haroun Alrashid Alonto Lucman Jr., said in a radio interview.
“We have already rescued several Christian families. We are calling on all other Christian residents in the city to call us and we will rescue them from their homes,” he added.
Lucman was at the provincial capitol, a few kilometers from the government facilities that were either burned or taken over by the terrorist group, and the St. Mary Cathedral, where Suganob, some staff of the cathedral and at least 10 churchgoers were being held hostage.
Terrorist calls bishop
Marawi Bishop Edwin de la Peña said he received a call before 8 p.m. on Tuesday from one of the militants, who introduced himself as “a member of the ISIS” or the Islamic State, and demanded a “unilateral ceasefire.”
“They want a ceasefire and for the military to give them access out of Marawi. Otherwise, they will kill the hostages,” the bishop said.
The prelate said the call was made from the phone of his secretary who was among the hostages.
De la Peña said the hostages were being used as “human shield” by the militants.
The Maute also allowed him to talk with Suganob, the prelature’s vicar general or administrator, to make sure that “their demands are clear with me.”
The prelate said he had difficulty getting in touch with the military in Marawi so he called Zamboanga Archbishop Romulo de la Cruz, who relayed the information to the Armed Forces’ Western Mindanao Command.
Archbishop Villegas called on Filipinos to pray for Suganob and other hostages.
“[W]e 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,” Villegas added.
Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Cardinal Quevedo made a similar appeal, and urged Islamic leaders to intercede for the safe release of the hostages.
“I pray for the safety of all the hostages. I appeal to the consciences of the hostage-takers not to harm the innocent as the Islamic faith teaches,” Quevedo said.