The Islamic City of Marawi will never be the same following the recent attack of terror groups and subsequent military air strikes there.
Nevertheless, I hope that peace and security soon return to the place.
Cool Marawi is not a picture of bustling prosperity that one invariably imagines upon hearing the word “city.”
But it teems with life and is rich in kind, hospitable inhabitants.
Friends and I went there one October in the 2000s to celebrate World Mission Sunday. Father Vincent Guinoo, then a brother of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity, facilitated the trip after serving in the cathedral for some time.
In deference to local custom, the women among us donned veils as our jeep entered the city.
Looking through the window, I saw the open, languid central market, with batik or multicolored fabrics hanging in the stalls.
Domes of mosques, onion-shaped and topped by representations of the crescent moon shaped the skyline.
I do not remember good roads, spacious sidewalks or tall buildings. In fact, I wondered where public money in the region went.
A nationally known broadcaster since freed had been abducted by the gymnasium. A newspaper in those days reported the kidnapping of university employees. But I believed these were isolated crimes to which even the safest havens on earth are sometimes prone.
Father Vincent had arranged for us to live with the locals. But before this, we were welcomed in the cathedral convent.
We took lunch in the home of one of the friends Father Vincent had made. Handicrafts from the tribes round and about were on display in the house — scimitars, swords and other bladed weapons.
I spoke with one of the ladies invited to lunch. It was not such small talk. She said she felt I should become a priest. When we left, she blessed us, tracing a cross in the air.
Expansive Lake Lanao was near. This was impressed on my mind when I went to the shower back in the convent and felt the cold tap water.
I stayed overnight in the house of a man and his wife, both lay ministers who wore genial, peaceful smiles.
In the morning, I walked through their garden, gazed at and photographed a big, fat sunflower.
The Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Help of Christians was inconspicuous.
The facade seemed to be of just another urban dwelling. Only when we went inside did we notice the hallmarks of a church — the high ceiling, statues of the saints and the eucharistic altar.
Once, a fellow visitor quoted a local, a bullet fell through the roof while parishioners held a prayer meeting in church.
We staged a concert for youths inside the Dimaporo Gymnasium. About 300 attended. My friend Norman Sulima, Father Vincent and others played guitar, keyboards and drums.
I sang pop hits like Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” David Cook’s version of “Always Be My Baby” and Simple Plan’s “How Could This Happen To Me.”
Our weekend trip ended with Mass in the gymnasium. My hosts served in the celebration. In addition to the formal attire such ministers usually wear, they wore over their shoulders, like a shawl, a white strip of cloth.
I pray for the peace of the Islamic City, now that bad men have torched the cathedral, burned a school, taken a priest and others hostage, and displaced residents.
The reality of Marawi City today can help the government exercise wisdom in foreign policy instead of cutting ties with allies.
Partners like the European Union are helping places with Muslim majorities progress.
Now is the worst time to forget that we need all the help we can get to enable prosperity and trample the influence of fundamentalists who pervert and weaponize religion wherever they lurk.