MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – "Ambassador De Villa?"
"Yes?" former Philippine ambassador to the Vatican Henrietta "Tita" de Villa hesitantly replied. She recalled becoming nervous as a stranger approached and called her at the Iligan City airport in 2008.
The stranger, De Villa said, "was short in stature, dark in complexion, with long hair and a long beard to match."
At that time, De Villa just arrived at the Iligan City airport for a number of meetings in Lanao del Sur.
Her activities there aimed to establish the Catholic-run Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a region fraught with election-related violence as well as fraud.
Marawi Bishop Edwin dela Peña, her long-time friend from their days in Rome, had offered to have a priest fetch her at the airport and accompany her.
De Villa had not met this priest before, so she "looked around for someone looking like a priest" at the airport.
To her surprise, the stranger who approached her was Father Teresito "Chito" Soganub, the priest assigned by Dela Peña to meet her at the airport.
"Wow! A Catholic priest looking like a Muslim imam," De Villa thought.
De Villa's 3 days in Lanao del Sur would further reveal who Soganub is, beyond the long hair and long beard. De Villa described him as a priest who loved Mindanao and its people, one who believed that "the best way to win over the Muslim brethren was, first of all, through patient hard listening."
People close to Soganub said similar things. Soganub, they explained, is a priest who is loved by both Christians and Muslims, one who tirelessly works for peace, and doesn't mind looking more like a Muslim than a Catholic priest in the name of friendship.
Kidnapped by Maute
The well-loved priest of Marawi City, however, fell in the hands of the country's enemies.
Soganub, 56, was kidnapped by local terrorists along with at least 10 others on May 23, when clashes between government troops and members of the Maute Group erupted in Marawi.
Soganub is the vicar general, or right-hand man, of the Marawi bishop.
He is one of around 9 priests serving the 40-year-old Prelature of Marawi, the grouping of Catholics in Lanao del Sur. The Prelature is also part of Lanao del Norte, where only 4.6% of the population belong to the Catholic Church.
Soganub's church, the Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora, also known as Mary Help of Christians, is named after an ancient title of the Virgin Mary.
The title, "Mary Help of Christians", was introduced after Christians miraculously won against the Turks in 1571 in the Battle of Lepanto. The devotion to Mary Help of Christians is invoked especially in times of persecution.
May 23 – the day Soganub and other church workers were kidnapped in Marawi – was the eve of the Feast of Mary Help of Christians.
Soganub and other church workers were preparing for the May 24 fiesta when they were held hostage by terrorists, who claim to espouse Islamic teachings but have been condemned by Muslim leaders themselves.
The Mary Help of Christians Cathedral was also desecrated and burned by terrorists.
The safety of Soganub and other hostages – including parish secretary Wendelyn Mayormita and parish council president Maria Luisa Colina – was included in the prayer intentions of the May 24 fiesta mass celebrated by Dela Peña in another town in Lanao del Sur, MindaNews reported.
'Friendly to all people'
Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Cardinal Quevedo, the first cardinal from Mindanao, said he too prayed for Soganub and the other hostages. (READ: Cardinal Quevedo slams terrorism as 'demonic ideology')
Someone whom he also knows personally, Quevedo said Soganub, who speaks fluent Maranao, belongs to their group, "Friends of Peace." The cardinal said Soganub is "very friendly to all the people" in Marawi City – Muslims and Christians alike.
Because of Soganub's long beard, Quevedo added, "Sometimes, he is mistaken as a Muslim."
Quevedo then explained Soganub's work in interfaith dialogue.
"His work stands out because of his own personal behavior and relationship, personal relationship, with leaders of Islam, with imams and ustadz, and he participates in conversations regarding the peace and order, and so on and so forth, with civil society and the city government," Quevedo said.
The cardinal said in this May 31 interview, "We pray for the best, that Father Chito and his companions who are church personnel may be freed, and other Christians there may be freed."
Like Quevedo, the bishop of Marawi said Soganub has "worked with the Muslims."
Dela Peña said Soganub, for one, worked with Moctar Matuan, executive director of the Institute for Peace and Development in Mindanao. "They were engaged in monitoring the local governance in the different municipalities," the bishop said.
Soganub also partnered with De Villa in setting up the PPCRV in Lanao del Sur. He was active, too, in helping victims of human trafficking in their province.
In strengthening ties between Christians and Muslims in Marawi, Dela Peña said Soganub "came in just at the right moment."
The bishop explained that Muslims were initially "suspicious" about efforts toward dialogue because they thought it was a Catholic strategy "for conversion, for proselytizing."
He said that when the 9/11 attacks in America came, that was when Muslims found the need to work together with Christians as "Islam is a religion of peace."
"We have to work together," Dela Peña said. "That was the opportunity."
He said Soganub seized this opportunity despite threats to his safety. Soganub too became afraid "because many times, he was caught in the crossfire" coming home from the Mindanao State University.
"Darating siya sa bahay na nanginginig (He would reach the house shaking)," Dela Peña recalled. But the bishop said, "He kept going."
'The life of the party'
Soganub also remained "very jolly," said the bishop. The priest was, in fact, "the life of the party".
"Siya 'yung palaging kinukuha na emcee dahil magaling magpatawa," Dela Peña said. (For events, he's always asked to be the emcee because he's a funny guy.)
The bishop added, "Hindi siya namimili ng mga tao to be with." (He doesn't choose whom to be with.)
Janet Braza, a visual artist and Soganub's close friend of 20 years, described the priest as a "down to earth" man who is keen on dialogue. Braza said Soganub, in fact, is often called to mediate in clan wars called rido.
She said that in engaging Muslim clerics in dialogue, Soganub also finds it important to look like them, as in the case of his long beard.
"'Yung mga pari ng mga Muslim, 'yung mga ulama, ganyan din, hindi sila nagre-remove ng kanilang balbas," Braza said. (The priests of the Muslims, the ulama, also do it that way. They do not remove their beards.)
Referring to Soganub, Braza said: "Gusto niyang ganoon para hindi siya ma-separate sa kanila. Gusto niya united eh. Gusto niya pakikisama, ganyan, to have a good dialogue." (He also wants it that way so that he won't be isolated from them. He wants to be united with them. He wants solidarity, in ways like this, to have a good dialogue.)
In 2008, Reuters made a similar observation of Soganub. The beloved priest of Marawi, Reuters said, "doesn't wear a crucifix or a clerical collar, and sports a beard out of respect for his Muslim neighbors."
His church – which terrorists burned on May 23 – "has no cross outside to show that it is a Christian church," Reuters also reported.
"To avoid arguments and to avoid further misunderstandings, we just plant the cross deep in our hearts," Soganub said.
With Soganub freed from the hands of terrorists, Christians and Muslims long to see him again – that Muslim-looking looking priest who planted the cross among Christians, and sowed seeds of friendship in everyone. – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.