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Catholics will not abandon Philippines

MANILA, Oct 15 – They have been kidnapped by Muslim militants, murdered and in one case even eaten by a cannibal, but foreign Catholic missionaries say they will not abandon the volatile southern Philippines.

They acknowledge the dangers of performing God’s work in Mindanao, the Roman Catholic country’s southern third where Islamist militants have for centuries struggled against Christian rule.

But, even in the wake of elderly Irish priest Michael Sinnott’s abduction on Sunday, it is a risk they say they are willing to take in spreading the gospel and helping disadvantaged people in impoverished areas.

"We will not leave this place, absolutely," said Father Indra Pamungkas, a 46-year-old Indonesian priest who has been in Mindanao for the past 17 years.

"I am not afraid, we are comfortable working here because God will protect us."

Pamungkas is one of more than 20 priests from the Sacred Heart order in Mindanao who preach in areas where Muslim militants and bandits have staged deadly attacks against men of the cloth.

Sacred Heart’s multinational roster includes priests from Poland, Italy, Argentina and Britain.

Pamungkas was speaking to AFP by telephone from Pagadian, the same city where six gunmen abducted 79-year-old Sinnott of the Columban order before fleeing into a remote coastal area known to be a Muslim militant stronghold.

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"We were shocked by the kidnapping. But overall, it will not affect our work," Pamungkas said.

The roughly 40 foreign and Filipino Columban missionaries in Mindanao similarly have no intention of leaving after Sinnott’s abduction.

"We will take necessary security precautions, but our work will continue," the Philippine head of the Columban Missionaries, Father Patrick O’Donoghue, told AFP.

Sinnott was the third Columban priest targeted in the south in recent years.

In 1997, militants kidnapped Desmond Hartford in the Islamic heartland of Marawi, releasing him after less than two weeks. In 2001, Rufus Halley was killed when he tried to fend off gunmen who tried to abduct him.

The Sacred Heart missionaries have also been targeted. One of them, Italian Giuseppe Pierantoni, was held for six months in 2001 during which he said he lived off snake and lizard meat before escaping.

Perhaps the most infamous case in Mindanao was that of Italian priest Tullio Favali, from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.

He was shot in the head by a gunman with links to a local religious cult in 1985, after which the murderer danced around his victim’s body and ate parts of the priest’s brain, according to police.

The Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group also seized an American missionary couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham, along with a group of Filipinos in 2001.

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After more than a year in captivity, Martin Burnham was killed in a military rescue.

While some of the cases are linked to local Muslims’ centuries-old resistance to Christians, non-religious opportunism and crime are also factors.

Allan June Molde, a government spokesman for Zamboanga del Sur province, said the priests were seen as easy targets for bandits and other opportunists who operate in what can be relatively lawless areas.

Very few foreigners live in the most dangerous areas of Mindanao, a vast island where most of the Philippines’ four million Muslims live as a minority.

As such, Molde said the priests were tempting targets for criminals because they travelled in unsecured areas and were mistaken for being rich, particularly Caucasians.

In Sinnott’s case, no-one is yet sure the motive for his abduction.

The military said a notorious pirate was involved in kidnapping him and may have wanted to pass him on to someone else to ransom him off.

However, four days after the abduction, no group has claimed responsibility for kidnapping him or made any ransom demand.

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