Fr. Benjie was killed in Jolo last Dec. 28, 2000. He was 42 years old. Four years ago Bishop Ben de Jesus wa also killed in Jolo. The two killings are the continuation of the same drama, the violent rejection of Christian Missionaries from some Muslim areas. The funeral of Fr. Benjie was held in Cotabato City on January 8,2001.
For me it was like repeating the experience of the funeral of Fr. Tullio Favali. The participants were moved by a deep sense or solidarity with this latest MARTYR FOR PEACE, JUSTICE AND RECONCILIA TI ON .
During the funeral Mass the young Bishop of Jolo, Lito Lampon, OMI, commented that Fr. Benjie was a very quiet Priest, his loudest message was his death.
Then Bishop Lampon added an explanation of the killing more or less in these terms: “It could have been anyone of us. For some Muslims in our island of Jolo we priests are considered ‘Haram’ or like ferbidden food (like pigs in their culture?).
Not all Muslims think that way, only some, many others welcome our presence. But we cannot ignore the fact that some consider our presence in their territory offensive. We will continue to stay there to witness to our faith in God’s incarnation, which is different from the concept of Allah the ‘totally other’ …Our presence will continue to promote peace and reconciliation.”
What kind of missionary presence is possible or ‘evangelical’ in Jolo?
In 1975 I was assigned to Tawi-Tawi together with Alessi and Vancio. Then the assignment was withdraw because of the deportations of Alessi and Gigi and tne death of Fr. Santo.
We were invited to the Vicariate of Jolo precisely in order to attempt a different presence. Because of our Community Organizing (CO) program among squatters in Tondo, together with teams of lay COs, we were considered for this venture.
In fact two of our Tondo COs were sent ahead to Tawi-Tawi to prepare the way. The Medical Mission Sisters in Bongao were running a Hospital, but they had already initiated extension Community programs and they were eager to have our CO teams join them. If we could have gone to Tawi-Tawi my life story would have been quite different, and also the life stories of Alessi and Vancio…
During our ride to Cotabato for the funeral of Fr. Benjie I had a lively sharing with our Bishop and some other priest about the kind of presence that was proposed for Jolo. I recalled that in 1997 I visited Jolo for the Funeral of Bishop Ben de Jesu.. In that occasion I had the chance to listen to Fr. Fred Epis, OM!, explaining how he had attempted to introduce the CO approach in Jolo with the help of some lay organizers from Kidapawan. ..but after the killing of Bishop Ben Father Epis could not see any more how to continue a missionary presence in Jolo, se he left the priesthood and became a politician in our area.
Now what approach will the OMIs try in order to continue their missionary presence there?
After the funeral Mass we went to the OMI cemetery in Tamentaka. There I saw the grave of Bishop Nepumuceno who died also in Jolo the day of the funeral of Bishop Ben de Jesus because the plane crashed right after take off the airport of Jolo.. There were rumors that the plane was either shot or damaged. In any case I remember seeing the body of Bishop Nep all burned up.
Definitely Jolo is not the safest place for Missionaries. Then this year we heard so many stories about the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo. ..
At the OM! cemetery I saw also the graves of Fr. Beato Tarima and Primo Hagad who were among the founders of the Kidapawan Diocese. Then of course Archbishop Quevedo and many familiar OMIs and OND sisters were also there. Too bad that Nicola Mapelli did not come along to Compare his experience in Sibuco with the OM! experience in Jolo.