DATU PIANG, Maguindanao (MindaNews/06 October) — – They did away with their annual fiesta party, the minority Catholics here, opting instead to use Sunday’s party money to buy food for the predominantly Moro evacuees.
Traditionally, says Father Jonathan Domingo, the Oblates of the Mary Immaculate’s Cotabato district superior and parish priest here from 1997 to 1998, they would have a party at the grounds of the Sta. Teresita of the Child Jesus parish grounds, open to Catholics and Muslims alike during the October patronal fiesta.
This year, he said, the money intended for the party was instead used to buy food for the evacuees.
Before the 9 a.m. fiesta mass could begin, a parishioner asked Domingo if the new parish priest, whose name was going to be announced after communion, is “hindi takot sa putukan” (not afraid of gunfire).
Domingo, main celebrant of the mass, and a “war veteran,” having been parish priest of Pikit, North Cotabato during the Estrada administration’s “all-out war” in 2000, smiled.
“Isa sa kanila” (one of them), Domingo said, as he pointed to the three priests with him, would be their new parish priest. Fr. Elino Isip, who served as parish priest here, is presently recuperating from an ailment.
Domingo was with Fr. Eduardo “Ponpon” Vasquez, who succeeded Fr. Roberto Layson as head of the Oblates’ IRD (Inter-Religious Dialogue; Layson is on a year-long sabbatical), Fr. Dennis Gui, OMI provincial treasurer and Fr. Rodel Lopez, OMI parochial vicar.
After the communion, Domingo read the “letter of obedience” and presented the new parish priest, Father Vasquez.
Only five years as a priest, Vasquez, 35, not only heads the IRD but also I-Watch, which produces the Oblate Media’s “video documentaries for justice.”
Before the mass began, Vasquez, carrying his video camera, took a footage of the church, the parishioners, his fellow priest and a burnt statue of the risen Christ lying on the floor.
”I will have this put up again,” he said.
Vasquez was formerly assigned at the San Isidro Parish in Nuro, North Upi, Shariff Kabunsuan.
He started his I-Watch project with the mission to “awaken, inform, educate and inspire persons or communities through video productions and presentations” and to “motivate people to act together on urgent issues like poverty, the environment, peace, justice, culture and faith, especially as these issues have an impact on their local communities.”
“It also aims to help the local indigenous groups (the lumad) in their struggle for equality, peace and justice,” the Oblate Communications’ website says.
From a predominantly Lumad area in North Upi, Vasquez, a graduate of the Social and Religious Communications program, Crec-Avex, in France, is now assigned to a predominantly Moro area, his second after Pikit, North Cotabato, where he has been based as IRD head since July and where he has been at the frontlines, documenting the mass evacuations and nearly getting strafed during the recent breakout of hostilities between the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front forces and neighboring towns and villages, including Datu Piang.
“We will rebuild together the church of Datu Piang and alleviate the people from their suffering by uniting them and asking the help of neighboring parishes and municipalities,” he told MindaNews of his mission statement for his new assignment.
Portions of the church here were burned evening of June 20 this year in what Isip said, initially, may have been arson. “The fire started from the back of the church, where the old convent was, and quickly ate up the wooden structure of the old convento and eventually destroying the fairly new sanctuary area and the rest of the church,” a report posted in the OMI’s website says.
The new convent where Fr. Isip was staying was spared. He reported that “Muslims and Christians helped douse the fire in the church.”
Outside the church on this Sunday morning, soldiers could be seen patrolling the area. From a distance, gunshots could be heard.
Near the church altar, the fiesta theme is displayed prominently: St. Therese, advocate of peace.”
Datu Piang, the heartland of Moroland, has been home to the Oblates since 1954 when they first set up the Notre Dame of Dulawan. The Sta. Teresita of the Child Jesus parish was established in January 1955.
At around 11:20 a.m. vehicles leaving Datu Piang were not allowed to proceed as government and Moro rebels traded bullets at Pagatin, some six kilometers away.
Thirty minutes later, traffic was back to normal. A few minutes later, vehicles were barred again from proceeding but traffic resumed quickly back to normal.