Christians afraid to celebrate Christmas dawn masses
By ROGER M. BALANZA
DATU PIANG, Maguindanao – Christmas is a celebration of peace but in this Muslim-dominated municipality, the Simbang Gabi—the Philippine Christians’ 9-day tradition of welcoming Christmas Day with dawn masses—has become a terrifying experience.
Maguindanao province remains volatile: On November 23, Datu Unsay municipality Andal Ampatuan Jr. led more than 100 militiamen in the mass murder of 57 people in Shariff Aguak town. The victims included women and 30 local journalists in the most gruesome murder of the century linked to the 2010 elections.
The victims were in a convoy to file the certificate of candidacy of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadato, who is running for governor of Maguindanao in May against an Ampatuan, the Mangundadatus’ rival for political supremacy in the province. Among the dead were his wife and two sisters and women followers.
The Ampatuans, including former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. and several other clan members, are now in government custody charged with multiple murder and rebellion.
Fear is what envelopes the small Christian community of Sta. Teresita parish in this town, when they go to church for the Simbang Gabi which starts at 4:30 AM.
Most of the militiamen, loyal to the Ampatuans, who butchered the 57 in what is now known as the Maguindanao Massacre, are on the loose and hunted by police and military.
There could be firefight anytime, said parish priest Eduardo Vasquez.
The fear factor has diminished attendance to the dawn masses since it started on December 16, but Fr. Vasquez has a mission to continue the religious tradition.
But for now, he has his ears on the ground for a looming clash between government troopers and the Ampatuan fugitive henchmen.
If my parishioners’ lives are in danger, we can make the dawn mass a daylight mass if we get information about a crisis situation, he said. “If I sense danger, I would transfer the masses in the afternoon.”
“So far, we have been up to the traditional schedule. But I told the people we would be very flexible,” Fr. Vasquez said.