ZAMBOANGA CITY – SILSILAH Dialogue Movement president Fr. Sebastianop D?ambra recently exhorted Muslim and Christian religious leaders to not just stop condemning rampant terrorist and violent acts committed against local civilians but ?to go from house to house and approach our people and say: Change, change.?
Fr. D?Ambra made the appeal to his fellow Christian and Muslim religious leaders during a press conference held last November 7 by families of kidnap victims being held hostage in Basilan province in exchange for ransom money.
?Be ashamed to be a Muslim, or be ashamed to be a Christian,? Fr. D?Ambra told the extremists in Basilan Province, who have consistently claimed to be fighting for the cause of Islam when they carry out their kidnappings of Christians or engage in other lawless and violent activities.
?Please do not pray anymore if you do not have the sense of human respect for people, because God will not listen to your prayers?, Fr. D?Ambra told the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers of nearby Basilan island. He said the kidnappers may not only be Muslims, but some may be Christian bandits, too.
During the press conference, the families of three kidnap victims presented a joint letter signed by Zamboanga City Archbishop Romulo Valles, other Catholic priests, and members of business and civil society organizations appealing to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to intervene for the ?immediate release? of their abducted kin. At the time, Abu Sayyaf kidnappers were still holding nurse Preciosa Feliciano, humanitarian worker Merlie ?Milet? Mendoza, and Ateneo de Zamboanga University nursing student Joed Anthony Pilanga in exchange for millions of pesos in ransom.
A day after the press conference, Feliciano, 24, was released to her parents and negotiators in Barangay Limbo Kassah in Tipo-tipo, Basilan. She was in forced detention for four months.
A week after the press conference, the kidnappers also released Mendoza, who was kidnapped on September 15 together with Esperancita ?Espie? Hupida while traveling along the highway of Tipo-Tipo municipality. Several other personnel of the local Christian Children?s Fund (CCF) and Nagdilaab Foundation, Inc. (NFI) managed to escape soon after their abduction along with Hupida and Mendoza.
Hupida was released on October 29. All of the kidnapped women were freed only after payment of ransom in varying amounts. Abu Sayyaf terrorists are still holding Pilanga.
Saying the kidnappings in Basilan are ?not just isolated cases? but that the phenomenon ?is systematic, purposive and organized?, the victims? families in their letter had asked the President ?to direct and provide all forms of necessary support and assistance to the Philippine National Police, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the local government units, the legal system and members of the civil society involved in trying to come up with short and long-term solutions to this social menace?.
Mendoza?s twin sister Mirali Mendoza-Durr said the kidnappers were asking for US$1.5-million as ransom for her sister?s freedom. The parents of Joed Anthony revealed that the same kidnappers have demanded P50-million ransom for their son.
The kin of the victims in a press statement said ?records show that the total number of known kidnapped victims from January (this year in Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu provinces) todate has gone up to 33, 29 of which were released?.
?The estimated total ransom paid to kidnappers only for this year ballooned to forty million and one hundred ninety thousand pesos?, they disclosed.
The families lamented that the government has failed to extend any substantial help to them to facilitate a resolution of the cases. ?The government authorities cannot seem to offer enough protection over their citizenry. There is a sense of helplessness. No organized group is doing anything to prevent and address the issue of kidnapping. The captors are not brought to justice, and they continue their kidnapping operations. This problem of course is related with the broader conflict in Mindanao and the island provinces?, they said in the press statement.
Fr. D?Ambra said even priests in the Zamboanga peninsula, especially those who are assigned to rural areas, are forced to move around with security escorts because of the constant threat of kidnapping. Two PIME priests were kidnapped in recent years, for which huge ransoms were allegedly paid. The last one was of PIME parish priest Fr. Bossi in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay province, around the middle of last year.
Recalling her ordeal, Hupida said that ?I was treated fairly. I was fed. Ok lang naman. (But) I was really afraid. The fear was really real,” she said, especially when her captors threatened to cut her fingers as negotiations dragged. NFI president Fr. Angel Calvo played a key role in working for Hupida?s freedom.
Hupida is program director of NFI, a five-year old non-government organization that was reorganized out of the defunct Isabela Foundation, which was set up by the prelature of Basilan province to undertake social action projects in the island.
NFI?s current projects in Basilan include micro-lending, housing, mangroves replanting, good governance advocacies, and peace-building. A good number of these, funded by foreign grants, are implemented in predominantly Muslim communities.
The Abu Sayyaf four months ago circulated a letter in the province demanding the conversion of Christian residents to Islam, otherwise pay a religious tax or failing that expect violent reprisals from them.