ZAMBOANGA, Philippines: Six people were wounded Saturday when a bomb went off in a church during Christmas mass on a southern Philippine island known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, the military said.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Randolph Cabangbang said the Abu Sayyaf, a local Muslim militant group linked to the Al Qaeda network, may have been behind the attack on the church in a police camp on Jolo island.
“There is a possibility that this could be the handiwork of the Abu Sayyaf because they have been perpetrating similar attacks against the Catholic church,” Cabangbang said.
“The explosion occurred at around 7:15 in the morning while the mass was going on. Six people were slightly wounded in the explosion,” he said.
Among those wounded was the priest officiating the mass, he added.
Regional police director Chief Superintendent Felicisimo Khu said the bomb was a small device that went off near the altar. He said the bomb caused so few injuries because it contained no shrapnel.
Police investigators were searching the site for clues as to who might have been behind the blast, Cabangbang said.
He added that besides the Abu Sayyaf, other possible suspects included individuals with a personal grudge against the police.
A spokesman for President Benigno Aquino condemned the incident, saying it violated “the basic tenets of respect”.
“This assault on the peace cannot be justified on political or religious grounds,” spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a statement.
Although no one claimed responsibility for the attack, Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo, who is also based in the southern Philippines, said Christians in Jolo had been threatened by Muslims.
“There are communities that are being threatened for being Christian. They are receiving threats coming from so-called fundamentalist Muslims,” he told AFP.
“They're being intimidated by words. Many times they are being disturbed in their gatherings for worship,” he said.
He called on authorities to provide security and assure the safety of Christians in areas like Jolo, which is predominantly Muslim, unlike most of the rest of the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Philippines.
Security has been tightened in the island in the wake of the blast.
The Abu Sayyaf, a gang of self-styled Islamic militants founded in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, has long used Jolo as a base, carrying out kidnappings and bombings.
It is believed to have carried out the worst militant attacks in the Philippines including the bombing of a passenger ferry in Manila Bay that killed more than 100 people in 2004.
It has also kidnapped many foreigners and Filipino Christians, including priests and nuns, often hiding them in the jungles of Jolo and other southern islands.
US forces have been deployed in the southern Philippines since 2002 to train local troops in hunting down the Abu Sayyaf.
A roadside bomb believed planted by the Abu Sayyaf killed two US soldiers on Jolo in September last year.
Channel News Asia