A Catholic priest held hostage by pro-Islamic State militants during their five-month takeover of Marawi city in the southern Philippines three years ago died in his sleep of cardiac arrest Wednesday at the age of 59, church officials said.
Father Teresito Soganub, the most high-profile captive during the crisis, refused to leave behind a large group of men, women and children who the militants kept as “human shields” after they seized the lakeside city in May 2017 – the first time that militants linked with the Islamic State (IS) terror group took over a city in Southeast Asia by force.
“It is with great sadness that we make this announcement, on behalf of the prelature of Marawi,” said Bishop Edwin Dela Pena, Soganub’s superior. “Our dearly beloved Father Teresito Soganub died of cardiac arrest in his sleep early this morning, July 22, 2020, in his home in Noralah, South Cotabato.”
The militants abducted Soganub and dozens of other civilians after they attacked Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city in the Mindanao region where he served as vicar-general of St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Soganub became the face of the hostages during the siege and a fierce battle with government forces that ensued and left Marawi in ruins. In June 2017, his captors released an IS propaganda video of the bearded priest imploring the military to stop aerial bombardments.
The priest refused to abandon his flock when militants stormed his church and shot Catholics dead at point-blank range. And through it all, he never wavered in his faith, while calling on his Islamic extremist captors to engage Catholics in dialogue.
During his captivity, which lasted till mid-September that year, Soganub personally saw two of his fellow hostages be killed; one was caught in crossfire and the other died during punishing airstrikes by the military that were intended to soften enemy positions, the priest told BenarNews during an interview in August 2018.
“Whatever has happened to me, however it may have hurt, I still believe in inter-religious dialogue,” he said during a visit then to Mulondo, a remote southern town.
“We need to help bridge the understanding between Christians and Muslims,” the priest said.
As a hostage in Marawi, he recalled that he was forced to convert to Islam, cook for the militants and even build improvised bombs. He was made to do this under the threat of being executed if he did not obey their orders, he said.
Soganub’s fellow hostages included teachers from a local college, a baker, waiters, and carpenters. They ranged in age from the early twenties to sixties.
On Sept. 16, 2017, his 117th day in captivity, Soganub escaped when his captors engaged in a shootout with government forces.
The siege of Marawi ended in October 2017, leaving an estimated 1,200 militants, soldiers, and civilians dead.
‘He never showed any hatred’
On Wednesday, local leaders from Marawi and its surrounding province paid tribute to Father Teresito after hearing the news that the priest had died.
Drieza Lininding, a Muslim leader in Marawi who lost his home during the battle, said the priest’s death was a great loss.
“I just hoped that his full personal account during his captivity by the ISIS-linked group that occupied parts of Marawi was recorded and preserved because he is a potential witness in the future to investigate what really happened,” Drieza said, referring to Islamic State by another acronym.
Zia Alonto Adiong, a Mindanao lawmaker who was the spokesman for the provincial government of Lanao del Sur at the height of the siege, remembered Soganub as a clergyman who championed education, interfaith dialogue, and peace-building while serving as the priest of the Prelate of Marawi.
With Soganub’s death “Mindanao has indeed lost a champion of peace,” Adiong said.
“Despite being captured, he never showed any hatred towards the Muslim community. Instead, he used his experience as an inspiration to push forward with his advocacy for peace, harmony, and understanding between the tri-people of Mindanao,” he told BenarNews.