THE advocacy and humanitarian arm of the Philippine Catholic Church has appealed for security and safety for Christian gatherings in the wake of a bombing incident that killed four students while attending a Catholic mass inside the Mindanao State University (MSU) gymnasium on December 3, 2023, in Marawi City.
Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo, president of Caritas Philippines, urged all stakeholders, including the government, religious leaders, and the community, as a whole, “to collaborate in fostering an environment of peace despite the incident.”
“Concerted efforts must be made to prevent the recurrence of such violent incidents and to safeguard the fundamental right to worship without fear of anyone," Bagaforo stressed, as the Catholics are celebrating this year's Christmas season.
“I am appalled by the blatant act of terror that the perpetrators were able to commit especially at this time when we are celebrating the Mindanao Week of Peace!" the prelate added in a report from Catholic news site UCA News.
In a statement, Caritas Philippines extended its condolences to the victims and families affected by this senseless act.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire community of Mindanao State University during this difficult time,” it added.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. earlier issued a stern warning to the perpetrators, saying that "extremists who wield violence against the innocent will always be regarded as enemies to our society."
"Rest assured we will bring the perpetrators of this ruthless act to justice,” the president said.
Authorities were eyeing that the bomb attack was “retaliatory," following “decisive military operations” conducted by the Philippine Army that killed 11 members of the ISIS-linked Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in a remote village of Datu Hoffer Ampatuan town in Maguindanao del Sur on December 1.
“We are looking at this angle as we have conducted a series of operations against terrorist groups [operating] in the whole of Western Mindanao [which includes] Maguindanao, in Lanao and Basilan. What happened this Sunday morning could be a retaliatory attack, so that is one angle we are looking into," said Army chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. in a press conference on December 3.
On Monday, December 4, Bangsamoro Police Regional Office chief Police Brigadier General Allan Nobleza said they already have “persons of interest, and one of our persons of interest pointed to local terrorist.”
Earlier, Lanao del Sur Governor Mamintal Alonto Adiong Jr. maintained that “terroristic attacks on educational institutions must also be condemned because these are places that promote the culture of peace and mold our youth to be the future shapers of this country."
"I urge the security sector to get to the bottom of this immediately," he said.
Authorities have coordinated with the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to provide the necessary assistance to the victims and their families.
In 2017, Marawi City was taken over by Islamic State militants, which resulted to months of heavy gunfire, reducing much of the city's main thoroughfares into ashes and rubble, with at least 1,200 ISIS militants, army troopers, policemen, and civilians killed during the siege before the government forces took back its control.
“Right now, we still don’t have a specific suspect, but this is a terror act, probably by the Daulah Islamiyah,” Army Major General Gabriel Viray III, commander of the regional infantry division, also told the media on December 3.
The Islamic State faction has been known to have worked with local terrorist groups operating in Mindanao regions, such as the Maute Group, which assisted the foreign militants in the 2017 Marawi siege.
As of Sunday, the MSU administration has suspended classes and all academic activities "until further notice and has deployed additional security personnel to safeguard the campus."
"We stand in solidarity with our Christian community and all those affected by this tragedy," the university said in a statement.
During the Marawi siege, MSU also became a center point of the government forces as it planned and carried out its offensive against the foreign militants.