Pope Francis has denounced the bombing of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, Philippines. Two bombs blasted the cathedral during Sunday Mass, killing 22 people and wounding 111 more.
Entrusting the victims, who included five army soldiers, to Jesus and Mary, the pope reiterated "my strongest condemnation for this episode of violence that once again strikes this Christian community".
He said: "I raise my prayers for the dead and wounded. May the Lord, prince of peace, convert the hearts of the violent and give the inhabitants of that region a peaceful coexistence," he said
The first explosion went off inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo, in Sulu province in the predominantly Muslim south, and was followed by a second blast outside, which was detonated as security forces raced to the scene, officials said.
Police and military reports said the casualties included both troops and civilians. Photos on social media showed debris and bodies lying on a busy street outside the cathedral, which has been hit by bombs in the past.
Troops in armoured carriers sealed off the main road leading to the cathedral while vehicles were transporting the dead and wounded to the hospital. Some casualties were evacuated by air to nearby Zamboanga city.
The Philippine Catholic bishops condemned the attack as an “act of terrorism” and offered their condolences to the families of the dead and the injured.
“We condole with the families of the several soldiers and civilians who were killed by the explosions,” Archbishop Romulo Valles, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), wrote in a statement following the attack.
“We also express our sympathies with those who were wounded and extend our solidarity with the rest of the church-goers inside the Cathedral and the rest of the church community in the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo.”
The Philippine Bishops holding their Plenary Assembly in Manila were informed about the attack by Fr. Romeo S. Saniel , OMI, Apostolic Administrator of Jolo.
The bishops condemned the “act of terrorism that has taken place only a few days after the plebiscite on the Bangsamoro Organic Law” (BOL) which provides for the establishment of an autonomous political entity known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, replacing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
The bishops urged Christians to “join hands with all peace-loving Muslim and Indigenous People communities in the advocacy against violent extremism.”
“May all our religions of peace guide us in our quest for a brighter future for the peoples of Mindanao,” Arch. Valles said.
Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, the retired Archbishop of Cotabato in the nearby Mindanao Island, and his successor Archbishop Angelito Lampon, also deplored the attack on Jolo cathedral “on a sacred day, and at a sacred moment of worship”.
Card. Quevedo had served as parish priest of Jolo while Arch. Lampon had been Vicar Apostolic of Jolo until his appointment as Archbhshop of Catabato on Nov, 6.
“This is the action of evil people with utter disregard for the sacredness of human life and of human dignity,” the two Church leaders told CBCPNews.
The church leaders also appealed to authorities “to flush out the perpetrators of this barbaric crime and bring them to justice”. “We entrust the innocent victims to the Lord’s compassion and pray for their grieving families,” they said.
The attack was one of the deadliest in recent years in a region long plagued by instability. It came amid hope and excitement about the ratification the BOL that aims to bring development, jobs and peace to one of Asia's poorest and most volatile places.
Jolo island has long been troubled by the presence of Abu Sayyaf militants, who are blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist organization because of years of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.
No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
The endorsement of the BOL came with the hope of ending nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that has left 150,000 people dead.
Although most of the Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Sulu province, where Jolo is located, rejected it.
The province is home to a rival rebel faction that's opposed to the deal as well as smaller militant cells that not part of any peace process.