PRAY – it’s all the family members of Fr. Teresito “Chito” Suganob can do at this point as they continue the long wait for news of his capture amid fighting in Marawi, the Philippine city that’s now become synonymous with Islamic State (IS) terrorism.
It’s been nearly three weeks but Chito and several other captives remain in the clutches of the IS-inspired Maute group who are holding them as human shields until the Philippine government agrees to withdraw its troops.
His family learned he was abducted on May 24, a day after the Maute gunmen attacked Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city on Mindanao island.
Since then, they have been lighting candles and offering prayers daily at their ancestral house in the Norala township in South Cotabato province, where the priest grew up.
“Dear God, please release them safely from the hands of their captors,” said Roqueto, the third of the Suganob siblings.
Chito, known as “Tisoy” to his family members and friends, is the eldest of the six Suganob siblings, two of whom are women.
On May 30, the priest appealed in a propaganda video for his captors, pleading with President Rodrigo Duterte to pull out the government troops or stop the military offensives in Marawi. He spoke against a backdrop of rubble believed to have been caused by the running battles between Maute militants and government forces.
Chito has been serving at the Prelature of Marawi for 22 years. At the time of his abduction, he was the vicar-general of the prelature.
“It was him. We’re glad he’s alive. We have been praying for him. It is torture for us that he is being held captive by the Maute group,” said Marilyn Suganob-Ginnivan, the fifth of the Suganob siblings.
On June 8, military commander Brig. Gen. Rolando Joselito Bautista confirmed Chito was still alive, citing information from emissaries working to free trapped civilians in the besieged city.
Marilyn said she’s been having sleepless nights knowing that the life of her older brother is in danger.
“Sometimes in the middle of the night, I’d break down and cry. I’d kneel and pray that he would be released or rescued, as well as the other captives, from their abductors,” she said.
Another sister, Jocelyn Suganob, who is living and working in Canada, said other overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are also praying for the safe release of the priest and the other captors.
Jocelyn, who recently flew to the family hometown for a vacation, said she had come looking to meet the priest, only to learn of his abduction.
“I was shocked when I learned he was held hostage. We were looking forward to meet each other during our conversation prior to his abduction,” she said.
Jocelyn said she felt some relief after knowing that people, some not even known to the family, were concerned about her brother and praying for his release.
She said friends from London even informed her that the Filipino community there held a prayer rally for Chito’s freedom.
Chito, according to brother Roqueto, had always wanted to be a priest.
“He (Chito) was an altar boy during his younger days,” said Roqueto, who noted that they are the closest among the siblings. Both Roqueto and Chito sport long hair and long beards.
“We grew up in a religious family. Our late parents were lay religious leaders in the locality,” Roqueto said.
Marilyn said Chito (Teresito) was named after Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.
“I pray for her intercession as well as of the other saints, including Filpino Saint Lorenzo Ruiz, for Fr. Chito’s safe release as well as the other hostages,” Marilyn said.
Marilyn said they are praying for a miracle that will change the hearts of both President Duterte and the Maute Group, for the freedom of the innocent hostages.
Duterte put Mindanao under martial law hours after the Maute Group attacked Marawi City on May 23.
The fighting has since displaced 47,957 families or 239,887 individuals in Marawi who have sought refuge in various evacuation centers, government data show.
Over 200 people – at least 140 militants, 58 government forces and 21 civilians – have been killed in the clashes. On Saturday, the military suffered its single largest fatality with the death of 13 soldiers.
The gunmen have so far resisted air and ground assaults, with the military saying: “they are now occupying only 10 percent of Marawi City.”
The government had hoped to take full control of Marawi yesterday, June 12, the 119th Independence Day of the Philippines. The United States has also extended its assistance, using advanced intelligence information gathering equipment.
Marilyn said they are hoping that Muslim religious leaders could help influence the Maute Group in safely releasing their captives.
Chito is well-loved by Muslim residents in Marawi as he has been working for inter-religious harmony, she said.
With the military apparently closing on the main group holding Chito, who was snatched along with several other church workers at the St. Mary’s Cathedral, his siblings are keeping their faith in God and hope they’ll soon see him again, alive.
But they are also bracing for the worst and their prayers are all that’s holding their spirits high amid these difficult times.