Priest who became face of Marawi hostages dies at 59

Father Teresito Soganub was with his family when he died of a cardiac arrest in his sleep yesterday in his home town in the war-torn Philippine island of Mindanao. PHOTO: PHILIPPINE INFORMATION AGENCY
Father Teresito Soganub was with his family when he died of a cardiac arrest in his sleep yesterday in his home town in the war-torn Philippine island of Mindanao. PHOTO: PHILIPPINE INFORMATION AGENCY

The priest who was the face of hundreds of hostages taken by Muslim militants during the disastrous siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi more than three years ago died yesterday.

Father Teresito Soganub had suffered a cardiac arrest in his home town of Noralah, in South Cotabato province, in war-torn Mindanao island. He was 59.

He was vicar-general of the Catholic prelature of Marawi when more than a thousand militants, with ties to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, stormed the predominantly Muslim city in May 2017.

They held on to it for five months in what became the biggest and deadliest battle on Philippine soil since World War II.

Father Soganub was seized from his church with 23 others, with hundreds more rounded up and used as "human shields" by the militants.

Thousands hid inside their homes in Marawi and were unable to flee when fierce fighting erupted between an entrenched group of fighters trained in urban warfare and battalions of soldiers backed by tanks and warplanes.

A video of Father Soganub surfaced as clashes peaked weeks into the fighting.

In it, he pleaded on behalf of his fellow hostages for the military to stop the air bombardments.

He also aired the militants' warning that they would execute their hostages if the shelling continued.

That came as other videos emerged showing the militants shooting their hostages in the head or beheading them.

Four months after he was taken, Father Soganub and a church helper found an opportunity to escape when security forces closed in on a mosque where the two were being held. They ran to a tank that was just 50m away. He made it, but the helper did not.

The official tally records 87 hostages killed. But it is believed the actual number could be much higher.

Father Soganub later said in an interview that he was forced to convert to Islam, and cook and carry guns and munitions for the militants. "I was not afraid to die, but I was afraid to suffer," he told the Catholic-owned UCANews, a year after his rescue.

He said he reached a point where he doubted his faith and asked God why he was being tested so severely.

"I was angry with God for putting me in such a horrible situation. However, my faith in the Lord did not waver. In fact, it even became deeper. I prayed more feverishly than I used to do, with death staring us straight in the face."

Father Soganub took leave from his duties as a priest and began touring the country to promote inter-religious dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. "I am still a priest but no specific assignment," he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer last month.

He said he asked to be returned to his post in Marawi but his boss, Bishop Edwin de la Pena, told him to continue his healing process.

The priest was with his family when he died in his sleep.

When the siege ended in October 2017, half of Marawi lay in ruins. Till now, some 60,000 people are still living in temporary shelters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2020, with the headline 'Priest who became face of Marawi hostages dies at 59'. Print Edition | Subscribe