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Philippines: Christians, Muslims rally for release of kidnapped priest

road into Pagadian City

road into Pagadian City

More than 300 Muslims and Christians  took part in a march on Sunday,  calling  for the release of  Columban Father Michael Sinnott along the route the priest's armed kidnappers are believed to have taken.

As they walked through Pagadian City, in the southern Philippine province of Zamboanga del Sur Christians prayed the rosary and Muslims carried candles. They waved streamers and placards, one of which read: "Return to us Father Mick SAFE and SOUND." Some people could be seen weeping.

The previous Sunday, armed men forced their way through the gate of St  Columban's Residence in Pagadian City, seized 79-year-old Father Sinnott and bundled him into a van. They later transferred him to a boat, which headed out to sea.

Police found the charred shell of the van in a suburb of Santa Lucia, a Zamboanga del Sur town. The provincial governor's office on 15 October released sketches of three suspected kidnappers based on witnesses' accounts.

No group has yet claimed responsibility.

Mothers of children attending Hangop Kabataan (care for youth), a foundation the priest founded for children with special needs, helped organize the  prayer rally.

It began at 9am at the school the foundation runs, which Father Sinnott established in 1998. About 500 children, parents, Church workers, parishioners and members of interfaith and non-governmental groups gathered for the event.

Before the procession, deaf children of the school performed two dances expressing their "deep pain and sorrow" over the kidnapping of the cheerful Irish missioner they call tatay (father).

"Our children need him," one sobbing mother told UCA News as she watched.

Besides parents of the children the foundation serves, the Muslims and non-Christians who attended the rally were mostly the priest's co-members in the Interfaith Forum for Solidarity and Peace. That organization of Christians, Muslims and indigenous people with native beliefs was formed to build understanding and peace in Pagadian diocese.

Father Patrick O'Donoghue, director of Columbans in the Philippines, who was out of the city at the time of the rally, later expressed gratitude for the initiative.

"I wish I could have been there," he said. Earlier, he said his congregation remains most concerned about the health of their kidnapped confrere, who had a heart bypass in 2007.

Father O'Donoghue also said there was no truth to media reports that Columbans had sought US aid for the search and rescue of Fr Sinnott. He acknowledged that Columbans in the US had written to the Philippine ambassador there and to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton expressing concern, but said this was their own initiative.

Columbans in the Philippines were pleased with efforts by local authorities, he added.

The Crisis Management Committee for the search and rescue of Father Sinnott, headed by Governor Aurora Cerilles of Zamboanga del Sur, reported on Saturday  that it had no leads but was focusing its operations on Zamboanga del Sur, and the adjoining provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte.

Pope Benedict XVI referred to the kidnapping when he addressed pilgrims in Rome yesterday in St Peter's Square.

"On this World Mission Day, I wish to remember the men and women missionaries - priests, religious men and women and lay volunteers - who consecrate their total life to bringing the Gospel to the world, facing hardships and difficulties and at time even true and proper persecutions," he said.

"I am thinking, among others of Fr Ruggero Ruvoletto, an (Italian) Fidei Donum priest, who was recently killed in Brazil, and of Fr Michael Sinnott," who the Pope noted had been "kidnapped some days ago in the Philippines."