A series of explosions hit two provinces in the southern Philippines on Dec. 22, three days before Christmas, wounding at least 22 people.
A grenade exploded outside the Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral in Cotabato City while Mass was underway on Sunday evening.
Police said at least 12 people, including eight soldiers on patrol, were wounded in the grenade blast. Another improvised explosive device detonated nearby a few minutes later, wounding a passerby.
In the town of Libungan, Cotabato province, six others were wounded in two explosions while two others were hurt in another blast in the town of Upi, Maguindanao province.
Another bomb was thrown into a police station in the same town but did not explode. The police and the military are investigating the incidents.
The Cotabato Archdiocese condemned the grenade attack that sowed fear among residents, especially the faithful who had gathered in the church.
Father Zaldy Robles, a priest at the Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral, said the explosion, which was followed by gunfire, disrupted Mass, as those in attendance fled for safety.
“The Mass-goers rushed out of the church toward the convent after hearing the explosion and gunfire. They eventually returned and Mass resumed,” the priest told LICAS News.
The grenade was thrown outside the gate of a church-run radio station located beside the cathedral.
“It is sad that this kind of violence is happening while we are celebrating the holy Christmas season,” said Father Robles.
The priest called on the faithful to put their trust in God and not to be cowed by the incident.
“Let us not let the reign of darkness rule over us,” he said.
Commandos and police armored personnel carriers were deployed to secure the area.
Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi of Cotabato has placed the city under lockdown following the attack.
“We can rise above these acts of terrorism,” she said. “We are resilient and strong enough to fight against these people whose mission is to disrupt our peace,” said the mayor.
The military blamed the explosions on the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which has taken up the so-called Islamic State (IS) mantle.
“We do not discount the possibility that Daesh-inspired groups are behind this,” said Major Arvin Encinas, spokesman of the military’s Western Mindanao Command.
The Philippines is plagued by violent insurgencies, including a separatist uprising in Mindanao that has killed about 100,000 people.
Though a landmark peace deal with the largest of the rebel groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, was sealed in 2019, the most brutal extremist factions were not included.
Those groups include the IS-aligned BIFF and Abu Sayyaf, a kidnap-for-ransom gang that has been behind some of the nation’s deadliest attacks.
Two people were killed and 35 wounded in Cotabato in December last year after a bomb went off outside a shopping mall, which was also blamed on IS-linked militants.