RP priest turns to prayers and guns

LAMITAN, Philippines, AP

Traveling around his remote southern province, Roman Catholic priest Cirilo Nacorda carries something special along with a Bible and the other accouterments of his faith — a pistol.

The extra cargo would be unusual for most men of the cloth. But in violence-prone Basilan, Nacorda says his .45 caliber gun, concealed in a bag, is a basic necessity.

The predominantly Muslim island province, about 900 kilometers south of Manila, is the birthplace of the dreaded Abu Sayyaf. The Muslim extremist group kidnapped the 44-year-old Nacorda in 1994 and is at the heart of a religious war that has raged on and off in the southern Philippines.

Nacorda said he has been caught in the crossfire more than once, prompting him to arm himself and organize an armed group aimed at defending Christians in Basilan against the Abu Sayyaf.

“We cannot protect our lives by just prayers or dialogue. We have to be practical,” says Nacorda, parish priest of Basilan’s coastal town of Lamitan, scene of the Abu Sayyaf’s most recent terror.

Close to midnight on June 1, about 70 Abu Sayyaf guerrillas blazed into a small hospital, a nearby church and a convent at the heart of Lamitan’s dusty downtown, dragging along hostages, including three Americans, they abducted from a distant island resort a week earlier.

Lamitan, home to more than 60,000 people thriving mostly on coconut farming and fishing, is especially coveted by the Abu Sayyaf. The town, along with the provincial capital Isabela, are the only two places dominated by Christians in Basilan.

Nacorda said he was cornered by two young rebels who pointed their guns at him outside the church at the start of the assault, but he scampered away before they could fire. The men shot to death Nacorda’s driver and a church worker, apparently mistaking one of them for him, yelling “The priest is dead!”

Despite heavy gun, mortar and rocket bombardment by army troops, tanks and helicopters, the rebels managed to escape with their hostages the following day through a hospital backdoor. It was a major embarrassment to the military and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has vowed to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf.

The morning following the siege, Lamitan residents woke up to an ugly scene: smoldering debris where a house used to stand, concrete walls and iron gates riddled with bullet holes, sunlight filtering through a roof damaged by a rifle-fired grenade.

Elderly residents say the sight was too familiar. In the early ‘70s, they watched as Lamitan was practically leveled with intense air and ground bombardment ordered by then-President Ferdinand Marcos against attacking Muslim guerrillas.

Rebuilding afterward, some residents dug underground shelters; many began to keep guns.

In the past, the rebel group has demanded crosses be removed from Basilan and that Catholic priests should stop preaching there. The Abu Sayyaf, founded by Islamic radicals from Basilan, claims it is fighting for Islamic independence in the southern Philippines. Arroyo regards them as a band of criminals deserving “the peace of the graveyard.”

Since their emergence in the early ‘90s, the Abu Sayyaf has kidnapped or killed foreign and local Catholic missionaries and launched attacks on churches in Basilan and nearby Jolo Island.