Rescued Filipino priest talks of need for religious harmony

JIM GOMEZ
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Rescued Roman Catholic priest Father Teresito Soganub, center, waves to the media as he is presented in a news conference Monday, Sept. 18, 2017 at Camp Aguinaldo in suburban Quezon city, northeast of Manila, Philippines. Philippine troops have rescued Soganub and another civilian who were among dozens of people abducted in May when hundreds of militants aligned with the Islamic State group laid siege on southern Marawi city, officials said. At left is Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Ano and at right is Defense Chief Delfin Lorenzana. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — For more than 100 days, Catholic priest Teresito Soganub's life was threatened by every airstrike, gunshot and artillery bombardment that targeted his Islamic State group-aligned captors in the southern Philippines.

When Soganub, 51, began talking Monday about his captivity following his rescue by Philippine troops in Marawi city, there were no bitter condemnations. He spoke of how Muslims and Christians should live in peaceful coexistence.

"I still believe in an interfaith relationship, that we can be united as Muslims and Christians, that we're not enemies," Suganob said on board an air force plane that brought him to Manila.

Soganub has long promoted a dialogue between Muslims and Christians in the country's south, regional assemblyman Zia Alonto Adiong said.

Top military and defense officials met Soganub and he was briefly presented to a huge group of journalists, photographers and TV cameras at the military headquarters.

"Pray for me, for my healing and recovery," said Soganub, who appeared remarkably healthy with a long, white beard, and was in a jovial mood as he thanked his rescuers.

Asked how he was, Soganub said with a laugh, "Physically strong, handsome."

He smiled and waved before being ushered out of a military hall without taking any questions.

Soganub was among many civilians abducted in May when hundreds of militants waving IS-style black flags laid siege to mosque-studded Marawi, a center of Islamic faith in the south of the largely Roman Catholic nation. A few days after his abduction, Soganub appeared in a video, apparently taken under duress by the militants, in which he said he was with about 200 other hostages and that his captors wanted the military to withdraw its forces from the city.

"We want to live another day, we want to live another month," Soganub said in the video while standing alone in front of partially burned buildings.

In another video, the militants were shown smashing religious statutes, ripping a picture of Pope Francis and toppling a crucifix in a Marawi cathedral, in what the military said was an attempt to foment a religious war. Military officials asked Facebook and other social media companies to take down the video.

Other freed hostages have talked about female captives being abused and forced to marry some of the militants. Some hostages were shot and others were forced to loot houses, handle daily chores like cooking or made to wear black uniforms and carry firearms to fight alongside the militants, the military said.

Soganub said in the interview on board the air force plane Monday that he and other hostages were fed rice, sardines, noodles and corned beef taken from grocery stores by the gunmen, but the supply later dwindled alarmingly as the fighting intensified. Military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano said the priest told him he was not harmed by the militants.

Soganub will be allowed to rest and has not been subjected to a detailed questioning about his traumatic experience, Ano told reporters.

The ordeal took a toll on the priest, he said. When somebody at one point told him about an apparent escape plan, Soganub refused to go along.

"No, allow me to die here. I have already accepted my fate," Ano quoted Soganub as telling fellow hostages, who considered making a dash to freedom out of desperation.

Soganub was not aware that the military was planning to rescue him despite the odds, Ano said, adding that troops managed to drive the militants away from a mosque and then grabbed the priest and another hostage.

The gunmen continue to hold about 50 other hostages, Ano said, adding that rescue efforts were underway.