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Marawi 1986: Carmelite nuns kidnapped

Throwback Thursday: A cover story I was assigned to do in 1986 as a staff writer of the Sunday Inquirer Magazine was about the kidnapping of 10 contemplative Carmelite nuns in Marawi City. That was 31 years ago, when President Cory Aquino was barely five months in office and besieged by power grab attempts from all sides.

A sense of déjà vu swept over me last week when Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur, was suddenly besieged by the Islamic-State-inspired Maute terrorists who, at this writing, are still holding hostage a number of Marawi residents, a Catholic priest among them. President Duterte swiftly declared martial law in Mindanao on May 23; smoke continues to billow to the sky and fighting goes on.

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Per reports at this writing, 89 terrorists have been killed as against 21 government soldiers who lost their lives, and 19 civilians have either died in the crossfire or been slain/beheaded by the terrorists.

In her July 20, 1986, “Sundays” magazine editorial, editor Letty J. Magsanoc wrote about the kidnapped nuns: “But there was one detail that startled the heart: the sisters had asked if they could bring their guitar, and their kidnappers whose identities were unknown at press time, said yes.

“We personally don’t know any of the kidnapped sisters but … their wanting to bring with them an instrument of song into the unknown give us a picture of their life of giving, serving, loving and praying and of their daily cheerful struggles up in what would otherwise be a lonely hilltop convent in Marawi overlooking Lake Lanao.”

They were, at that time, right at home in the heart of a Muslim community. Here was how it was (now in the past tense) in Marawi Carmel:

Set high on a hill, the Carmelite convent in Marawi overlooked the placid Lanao Lake. It is said that on silent nights the view from there would remind one of Bethlehem.

It must have been easy to barge into the convent, a Carmelite nun who had been there said. Marawi Carmel from where 10 nuns were abducted was not the typical gothic monastery set apart by ivy-covered walls and iron grills. It was a poor Carmel, mostly made of wood. It was decidedly meant to be that way.

The Carmelites came to Marawi in 1980 to be one with everyone, a Christian contemplative community in the land of Allah. They came not to convert, but to be witnesses to Muslim-Christian brother/sisterhood. It was therefore a surprise that a mass abduction would happen.

The nuns got along with the people. The Muslims would even bring them food, a Carmelite nun from Manila said.

Mother Marie Madeleine of the Redemption (Ledesma), prioress of Marawi Carmel, was the moving spirit behind the community of cloistered nuns whose lives consisted mainly of prayer, adoration, fasting and sacrifices—an apostolate which earth-bound mortals may not easily understand. But even as they preserved the original spirit of Carmel as inspired by St. Teresa of Avila (the foundress of the Reformed Discalced Carmelite nuns and priests) their lifestyle in Marawi was indigenized and not merely a copy of western-style monastic life.

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During adoration, the nuns wore malong cloaks, they sang local songs, they adapted to the spirit of the place. Mother Madeleine even fasted during the Muslim Ramadan, in addition to the months-long fasting that Carmelites normally go through every year.

So little did they know that even as they were in the middle of a nine-day novena to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, they would suddenly be swept into the eye of a storm. Shortly after, an American Protestant missionary, Brian Lawrence, was also taken from his quarters at Mindanao State University. These happened not too long after the release of French Catholic priest Michel Gigord.

Reports said the nuns were forcibly taken from their convent, which was about two miles from the city center, by armed men believed to be members of the “lost command” of the Moro National Liberation Front. The abductors demanded a P2-million ransom.

For many other reasons, the contemplative nuns each headed for other Carmelite monasteries not long after that ordeal. Marawi Carmel is no more.

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TAGS: Carmelite nuns, kidnapping, marawi city, martial law
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