A Catholic priest known for his anti-mining advocacy was gunned down in the northern Philippines while suspected pro-Islamic State (IS) militants beheaded two farmers and set off a bomb in separate incidents in the south during a violent weekend, authorities said Monday.
Father Mark Anthony Ventura, 37, had just finished early morning Mass in a public gymnasium in a remote town in the northern city province of Cagayan and was chatting with choir members Sunday when two men on a motorcycle arrived and shot him at close range, police said.
The attack is the first in recent years against members of the Church, a politically influential institution in the Philippines, considered the bastion of Catholicism in Asia.
“We are totally shocked and in utter disbelief to hear about the brutal killing of Father Mark Ventura,” said Archbishop Romulo Valles, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
Authorities said they were still determining the motive, but added that the priest might have made some enemies because of his work campaigning against mining companies while helping the indigenous community in the province.
Pro-Islamic State groups launch attacks
Also on Sunday, suspected pro-IS militants launched attacks in the southern Philippines, setting off an improvised bomb that injured two civilians, police said.
The victims, identified as Dindo Zamora and Generosa Sumargo, were wounded when the bomb exploded outside the St. Anthony Parish Church in the southern city of Koronadal. Police recovered and safety detonated a second bomb near the location of the blast.
"We are still investigating what kind of explosive was used. The bomb was placed in a motorcycle with side-car parked beside the church,” regional police spokesman Superintendent Aldrin Gonzales said.
Chief Superintendent Marcelo Morales, head of the regional police, blamed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), saying the blast could have been in retaliation to ongoing police and military offensives in the nearby province of Maguindanao.
The BIFF, with hundreds of fighters, split from the 10,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s main insurgent force that had signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014.
The BIFF has pledged allegiance to the IS, but did not deploy fighters to the southern city of Marawi, a portion of which was occupied last year by pro-IS militants.
“It could be part of their retaliatory aim to downgrade the pressure of the military’s operation against them,” Morales said.
On Saturday, suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf group beheaded two Christian farmers in outskirts of Parang town, also in Maguindanao.
Villagers found the decapitated bodies of Ceasar Deamada Fermin, 42, and Jabon Bistas, 21, on Saturday, a day after they had told their families that they would be sleeping at a coconut grove for an early morning harvest, police said.
The Abu Sayyaf, or Bearers of the Sword, is the most brutal of militant groups operating in the southern Philippines.
One of its commanders, Isnilon Hapilon, later rose to become the acknowledged leader of the IS in the Philippines. He led a contingent of fighters from Asia and the Middle East in an audacious takeover of Marawi, the only predominantly Muslim city in the mostly Catholic Philippines.
The siege ended in October with near-daily bombing runs by fighter jets, backed by aerial surveillance support from the United States and Australia. Officials said 1,200 people died in the fighting, most of them militants.
But many fighters had escaped from Marawi, authorities said, acknowledging that the militants might be seeking sanctuary elsewhere in the south, where about 23 groups monitored by military intelligence have been recently recruiting members.
In July last year, the Abu Sayyaf beheaded two Vietnamese hostages they held since November 2016 in the province of Basilan.
Months earlier, in February, the gunmen also beheaded German yachtsman Jurgen Kantner. Two Canadian hostages suffered the same fate in 2016.