ROME— Facing the latest escalation of Jihadist violence on the Filipino island of Mindanao, Church figures in one of the world’s most Catholic nations, including a kidnapped priest, are appealing to the country’s tough-talking leader to explore non-military solutions to the conflict.

For over two weeks, militants linked to the Islamic State have besieged the southern city of Marawi, located in the Muslim-majority island of Mindanao. Parts of this lakeside city are still occupied today.

The militants who rampaged the city of 200,000 are part of a coalition between a gang known as the Maute, founded by brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute in 2012, and followers of Isnilon Hapilon, an Islamist militant on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists. Both groups have pledged allegiance to the terrorist Islamic State.

The militants’ violence began after a failed army and police raid to capture Hapilon. Although virtually unheard of a few years ago, the Maute, according to the Filipino armed forces, contributed over 260 of the fighters who attacked Marawi.

As a response to that failed attempt, on May 23 the terrorists kidnapped Father Chito Suganob, the Vicar General of the territorial prelature of Marawi. He has since then been missing, together with members of the cathedral staff.

In a video released last week, Suganob speaks directly to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, asking him to withdraw his army from the city and “to stop the airstrikes, and stop the cannons.”

In the five-minute video, recognized as authentic by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the priest lists the other “prisoners of war” taken hostage with him. The list includes many women and children, as well as students and professors of a Catholic college. Some 240 people are being held hostage.

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When the siege began, Duterte sent the army to the city and declared martial law across the southern third of the nation – home to some 22 million people – and warned he may expand it nationwide.

The military has confirmed that the Maute militants have killed civilians after they failed to recite Islamic prayers. The Cathedral Mary Help of Christians was burned to the ground.

As of May 31, according to the information gathered by papal charity Aid to the Church in Need, 104 civilians had been killed and more than 12,500 families displaced.

“We are still right in the midst of it, I don’t know how to describe it, our people are not there anymore, they have been evacuated, those who have been left behind, I don’t know what their situation is,” said the Bishop Prelate of Marawi, Edwin de la Peña.

Several attempts were made to try to reach de la Peña via phone, but the line is dead. He explains why in a recent interview he gave to Aid to the Church in Need, and which was sent to Crux.

“I was told that the cathedral and the bishop’s house have been totally destroyed, first by the torching, it was put on fire, and then also by the bombing because we are right there at the center of the fighting,” he said.

Rebuilding what has been destroyed so far, he said, “is going to be very difficult for all of us, not only for Christians but for the Muslims as well.”

Mindanao and some of the islands surrounding it is the only part of the Philippines where Christians-specifically Catholics- don’t represent the overwhelming majority of the population. Yet according to de la Peña, and with no little effort from Suganob, the Muslim-Christian relation in Marawi “was beautiful” until “this extremism emerged, the fighting, the presence of these extremist elements from the Middle East.”

De la Peña said that the local Muslim population is not sympathetic with ISIS elements, among other reasons because “they knew exactly what the consequences would be to the culture of people, to the way of life. The people of Marawi have always been very peaceful.”

The bishop-prelate fears that the work done in the past 40 years to foster good Muslim-Christian relations will be lost after the escalation of violence. Among other things, he believes that it’s possible some of the “natural biases that Christians have against Muslims” will be stirred up because there are people fueling these anti-Muslim sentiments.

On Sunday, Amaq, the Islamic State news agency, released a video showing Islamic militants destroying the Marawi cathedral, in a rampage that went far beyond setting it on fire: They smashed religious icons and tore down the images of Pope Francis and emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, while shouting “Allahu Akbar.”

“We are angered by what happened. Our faith has really been trampled on,” de la Peña told CBCP, the news agency of the Filipino bishops.

“That is blasphemy! That’s unacceptable. It’s obvious that their actions are really out of this world. It’s demonic,” de la Peña said.

Talking at a Pentecost recollection on Sunday, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, of Manila, said that what’s happening in Marawi, among other cases of violence, “lead us to ask: ‘What has happened to humanity?’”

Tagle, speaking both in English and Tagalog, wondered how is it possible that human beings hurt others.

“Could this be possible? Events like this sow seeds of distrust, division, further biases and prejudices,” he said.

Yet not all hope is lost.

Amidst the dreadful situations, many examples of Muslims helping Christians flee the militants are surfacing, fruit of the efforts made by both sides since the prelature was established by Pope Paul VI back in the 1970s.

According to de la Peña, the territorial prelature was created specifically “to provide a reconciling presence” among the Muslims.

Asia News reports on a statement made by a top official with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who has called for the release of a Suganob and the 200 other civilians held since 23 May. The group splintered from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the 1980s.

“We appeal to those who are still holding captive Fr. Chito to release him in the name of peace,” said MNLF vice chair for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar.

“He is a priest, a religious leader. In the time of prophet Muhammad, He respected so much religious leaders and non-combatants, like children, women, the elderly.”

By releasing him “the soonest possible time, we are sure that such deed will be rewarded by Allah,” Jaafar is quoted as having said.

MNLF, which was at war with the authorities for over three decades until signing a peace accord back in 2014, is actively cooperating with the authorities both in the fighting with the militants and also in protecting a humanitarian corridor through which, slowly but steadily, civilians continue to flee the city of Marawi.

The MNLF has also assured to keep its commitment to the peace process which some sectors now fear could be affected by the conflict in Marawi City.

The Interreligious Solidarity for Peace and the Zamboanga Peace and Security Forum released a statement last Friday, saying that there’s a need to “quell the fires of hatred.”

The groups noted the efforts of Muslim residents protecting Christians from the threat of the Maute group.

“While these events have manifested the worst of the self-styled oppressors and threat groups that have hostaged the residents of Marawi, they have brought out the courage and peace-loving character of our people,” they said.

“Muslims protecting Christians in ways that show that we are One Mindanao, even as the spirit of Ramadan inspires our Muslim brothers and sisters towards special protective actions to shield terrified Christians against the dangers of detection and possible annihilation,” the groups said.

UCA News reports that Claretian Father Arnold Abelardo is leading a “psychological intervention” program in the affected areas to “assist the government in providing services to communities affected by the war.”

According to the report, the priest was inspired to conduct the medical mission after learning of the abduction of Soganub: “The mission of the church should continue,” he said. “The sacrifices of Father [Soganub] and other hostages would be useless if we will not act.”