For the first time since May 23, 2017, Bishop Edwin de la Peña on Thursday prayed inside his cathedral in Marawi City, located in the southern Philippines.
That day, militants linked with the Islamic State attacked St. Mary’s Cathedral, setting it on fire and taking several staff members and worshippers hostage.
The same day, several other buildings in the city were attacked, including a Protestant school and the city’s jail.
Gunmen also stormed the bishop’s residence, but he wasn’t found.
This incident was the opening salvo of the Battle of Marawi, and for the next five months, government troops battled the Islamic militants to take back control of the city.
More than 1,100 were killed, including more than 900 Filipino and foreign militants, and nearly 500,000 people were displaced by the fighting.
According to a report by Amnesty International, militants took numerous civilian hostages, a majority of them Christians who were physically abused, made to do forced labor, used as sex slaves or human shields and forced to make bombs and fight the military.
St. Mary’s Cathedral shows the scars of the conflict: The walls are riddled with bullet holes, and much of the religious decoration has been destroyed.
When de la Peña visited the cathedral on Jan. 11, he was accompanied by officials of Aid to the Church in Need and the Order of Malta Philippines.
Marawi is located in the Muslim-majority region of Mindanao, and the Territorial Prelature of Marawi is only 5 percent Catholic.
In 2014, the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – an Islamic rebel group – signed an agreement allowing for limited self-rule in the region, including the imposition of some sharia law.
The Maute group – which carried out the siege in Marawi – was made up of members of the MILF which rejected the peace deal. The government said the group was “practically wiped out” during the battle.
De la Peña has called on Catholic dioceses across the Philippines to adopt affected communities in long-term recovery efforts.
The bishop, together with the Redemptorist Missionaries, organized a national group of priests and lay missionaries to form a social action center to plan and implement both short-term and long-term church-based responses to the Marawi siege.
The program is called Duyog Maraw — using the Cebuano term for accompaniment — and acknowledges the role of the Catholic Church is to accompany the people of Marawi as they rebuild their city and their lives.
In December, the bishop told Aid to the Church in Need his main priority was to rebuild relationships between Christians and Muslims.
“The raison d’etre of the prelature has always been to establish dialogue between Muslims and Christians … Marawi has always been the showcase of inter-religious harmony here in the Philippines,” de la Peña told the organization.
He said at the time that his cathedral “could wait” as he tried to organize healing sessions and a counseling center for those traumatized by the battle.