Philippine Army Maj. Charlie Escantilla (left) trains a group of Knight volunteers how to identify suspected bombs. (Photos by Ferdinandh B. Cabrera)
Before dawn breaks on Sunday morning, retired Philippine Army Sgt. Teodorico Bautista, 48, prepares himself with a flashlight before hitting the road to Immaculate Conception Cathedral, about half a kilometer from his home. He either rides on a padyak a pedaled tricycle or walks, but he makes sure that he is at the church before the first bell.
Knights inspect suspicious items, bags and vehicles that go in and out of the cathedral compound.
Bautista is the chief of a marshal group formed by Cotabato City Council 3504 in Mindanao, Philippines, to augment military and police forces against bombing threats in the cathedral compound. Once a specialist in intelligence work, Bautista now coordinates all threat information and immediately informs the parish and authorities of any potential dangers.
“I am doing this voluntarily to serve God because of my patriotism for this country and my promise of charity as a member of the Knights of Columbus,” he said.
A SENSE OF SECURITY, A SENSE OF DUTY
On July 5, 2009, while Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato celebrated morning Mass, a powerful bomb packed with nails and jagged iron exploded in front of Immaculate Conception Cathedral, killing five civilians immediately and injuring at least 30 others. The explosion occurred after persistent bomb threats had been leveled against churches in central Mindanao, and it was the fourth attempt to plant an improvised explosive device in the area surrounding the cathedral since 2003.
Apart from the tragic cost in human life, the blast had a second consequence: a noticeable drop in Mass attendance.
“The news broke my heart,” said Balbina Pasawilan, a 53-year old woman who was returning from an earlier Mass when she heard about the explosion. “After that, there was apprehension that the incident would be followed by more bombings, so I decided not to attend Mass for the next few Sundays.”
For 71-year-old Zenaida Tato, the incident was a test of faith, as she continued attending Masses despite the danger. “We lived here for more than five decades, mingling with other cultures and beliefs, and we are used to news about violence. But I was never affected by these atrocities,” she said. “Instead, I continued my relationship with God.”
In response to the decline in worshippers, the parish sought assistance from Council 3504, which led to the creation of the Knights’ marshal service.
“There was a great backlash as a result of threats to the church, and we were called to respond to the situation,” said Grand Knight Rey Anthony del Rosario. “Our sense of duty, charity and patriotism is needed, despite the risks we are facing.”
Dressed in long-sleeve white shirts and black pants, a squad of Knight marshals is deployed in every corner of Immaculate Conception Cathedral, working in shifts for each of the nine Masses that are offered every Sunday. The marshals, supervised by Bautista, ensure that motorcycles are thoroughly inspected and parked safely inside the cathedral gymnasium, which is 100 meters away from the church. Other vehicles are parked in a designated lot where routine checks are made with the use of bomb-sniffing dogs.
“We gained trust with churchgoers, treating them with respect, dignity and courteousness as we check their bags or vehicles,” Bautista stressed.
“We ease their anxiousness and make everybody comfortable,” added Jose Reymar Rosalinas, another marshal. “In the middle of solemn prayers, they are not thinking of any bomb threats or their vehicles getting stolen.”
Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Cotabato City, Philippines, is pictured in November 2011. Following a terrorist bombing at the cathedral in 2009 and ongoing threats, local Knights began volunteering as marshals to secure the area around the cathedral during Masses.
Armed with whistles, flashlights, K of C identification cards and cell phones with emergency numbers, the marshals inspect suspicious items, bags and vehicles that go in and out of the cathedral compound. In many cases, marshals have successfully worked with authorities to report suspected individuals and vehicles.
“It’s like guarding your own house,” said Col. Dorotheo Jalandoni of the Marine Battalion Landing Team 7, which is stationed in Cotabato City. He added that the Knights “know who their members are and are helping a lot as a force multiplier in our battle against terrorism.”
THREATS AND MOTIVES
The bomber in the 2009 incident, who was caught on closed-circuit video feed, was unable to plant his bomb inside the cathedral. Instead, he left the explosive device in front of the church and timed the explosion for when worshippers would be exiting the cathedral.
At the time, the Philippine Army blamed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim secessionist group that is linked to the terrorist organization Jamaah Islamiyah. MILF, however, rebuffed this claim, saying that civilian attacks are against Islamic principles. The group’s spokesperson offered that the bombings could have been “the work of right-wing saboteurs opposed to peace talks.” The talks in question would forge a peace deal between the Philippine government and MILF, which has waged a war for decades to demand an independent state within Mindanao.
Although a case was filed against the suspects, it is pending in the prosecutor’s office of a local court in Cotabato City. According to Felisicimo Khu, the director for integrated police operations in Western Mindanao, prosecutors lack individuals to stand witness for fear that the culprits will retaliate against them and their families.
“The case is not moving at the moment. There are no affidavits of witnesses, nor suspects,” said Khu.
According to police intelligence reports, the bomb-maker was a Filipino citizen with links to known terrorist organizations. He is believed to have orchestrated several bombings that have killed, injured and maimed many innocent civilians, and has been indicted in the Philippines for his role in multiple bombings since 2003. He is thought to be in hiding somewhere in central Mindanao and is considered by U.S. authorities to be a threat to both American and Filipino interests.
In August 2011, meanwhile, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front identified the top 10 people that they see as a threat to ongoing peace talks. Auxiliary Bishop Colin Bagaforo of Cotabato and Bishop Martin Jumoad of Isabela were among those cited, along with politicians and columnists. Several weeks later, police received intelligence reports that militants planned to bomb three churches in Cotabato City, including the cathedral. According to the reports, the threat was related to the so-called “spoilers list” and was clearly an attempt to intimidate.
Regardless of who is ultimately identified as responsible for the threats or bombings, a top government security analyst anonymously claimed that a primary motive is to gain the recognition and financial support of international terrorist groups. There is also number of secondary motives, ranging from extortion to eliminating political opponents or whistleblowers.
TRAINING TO PROTECT
To combat terrorism threats, the K of C marshals on Nov. 6, 2011, were called to attend a bomb awareness workshop. Inside the city council’s session hall, just beside the cathedral, around 30 Knights sat in front of a table displaying different types of explosives. The workshop was preceded by Mass.
“Be careful of moving around guys. We have a lot of explosives here,” said Joel Cadelina, financial secretary of Council 3504.
At 8 a.m., officers from the 6th Explosives Ordnance Division, headed by Army Maj. Charlie Escantilla, started the workshop. The lecture quickly turned conversational as Escantilla and his students traded questions about checking for suspected bombs.
“Has the enemy evolved in their strategies?” asked one participant.
“Yes, in fact. They are using the courier companies to illegally import some materials undetected,” said Escantilla. “It’s a global problem that we have to work together on, and we are so glad you have this initiative.”
Aside from the lecture and questions, the officers also screened short videos on how bombs are planned, triggered and impacted using different kind of explosives like mortars, rockets, grenades and land mines.
“We are showing you these to familiarize, so that you can report to us immediately when there are suspicions,” Escantilla explained. He added that several dud mortars and rockets, which have become potential sources for bomb manufacturing, are now in the hands of the enemy following conflicts in 2000 and 2008.
The November training was especially timely because of the number of late-night activities that took place at the cathedral during December including a weeklong fiesta for the Immaculate Conception and the Simbáng Gabi, a traditional novena in honor of the Blessed Mother preceding Christmas.
Since it began, though, the Knights’ marshal service has functioned well, and people have begun to regain confidence in the safety of the environment.
Frank Cerdenia, a maintenance worker at the cathedral, has observed the positive developments firsthand; he previously discovered a bomb at the cathedral in 2005.
“Before the marshals came, I could say there was lax security,” Cerdenia said, “but now there is a big difference. People around here are more vigilant to check things.”
The marshals’ effort at the cathedral has been such a success that K of C members at other area councils have emulated the marshal service at their own parishes. Volunteers believe it is a task that must be undertaken, even if it involves the threat of danger from potential explosions or terrorist retaliation.
“What is more important is to save the lives of innocent people,” said Bautista. “It is our duty as members of the Knights of Columbus to protect the innocent and the weak against the threats of evil.”
FERDINANDH B. CABRERA writes for MindaNews from Cotabato City, Philippines, where he is a member of Mary Queen of Peace Council 8134.