Cathedral Cancels Easter Services After Months of Urban Warfare Against ISIS Group

A destroyed church building in Marawi, Philippines, with a close-up image of a Jesus Christ statue desecrated.

A Roman Catholic cathedral in the Philippines cancelled its Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday services for this week, thanks to months of urban warfare against a Philippine radical Islamist group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS).

"For the first time in many years, we will not hold any service in the cathedral itself," Marawi Bishop Edwin dela Peña announced last Friday. "But in other parishes in the prelature, we will have our Holy Week services." Christianity revolves around the events of Holy Week: Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, His Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, His Crucifixion on Good Friday, and His Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Despite the religious (and even historical) importance of Easter, St. Mary's Cathedral, the seat of the Prelature of Marawi in Marawi City, remains closed and 300,000 people remain in temporary shelters after the 2017 Battle of Marawi, The Arlington Catholic Herald reported.

Last June, militants with the Maute group, a radical Islamist organization that pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015, captured St. Mary's Cathedral. Videos released at the time showed terrorists shouting "Allahu Akbar!" as they smashed Catholic icons, tore photographs of Pope Francis, and burned down the church.

St. Mary’s Cathedral in #Marawi, post-war.

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At the time, De la Peña denounced the vandalism as "demonic."

"We are angered by what happened. Our faith has really been trampled on," he said. "That is blasphemy! It's unacceptable. It's obvious that their actions are really out of this world. It's demonic."

The military recaptured St. Mary's Cathedral on August 25, 2017. The first Sunday mass since its recapture took place on October 1, corresponding with the feast day of Therese of Lisieux, patron saint of the Philippine Army. At least 300 uniformed soldiers attended.

The Battle of Marawi lasted from May 23 to October 23, and cost the lives of 974 militants, 165 Philippine soldiers, and 87 civilians. The United States, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, and China aided the Philippines in fighting back the Islamists.

Catholics are a minority in Marawi City, where they make up only 5 percent of the mostly Muslim municipality.

The vicar-general of the Marawi prelature was abuducted by Maute terrorists and will not be returning to the city soon. Father Teresito Soganub said he was still in "the healing stage." He added, "I won't be able to go back to my regular ministry yet."

"You face death every day," Soganub said, recalling his captivity. "Sometimes it's even every minute. You don't know where the airstrikes will hit. ... You wait for your death every minute."

The priest said his faith in God sustained him during the ordeal. "If it was just me, I wouldn't have been able to endure it. I believed in the presence of God. I always asked him to give me strength, not to leave me, and I knew he wouldn't leave me," Soganub said.

Bishop dela Peña explained that, while St. Mary's Cathedral will not celebrate Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter, Holy Week services will still be held in six other churches in the area.

"I feel hopeful that people will help us rebuild the cathedral," the bishop said, acknowledging, however, that his priority is "not the building but the needs of the community."

Easter will go on, just not at St. Mary's Cathedral.