Filipino Muslim Militants Detain 'Prayer Warriors'

July 7, 2008 - 7:08 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Islamic militants holding foreign tourists hostage in the Philippines detained a group of evangelical Filipino Christians who arrived at their forest stronghold over the weekend, asking to be allowed to pray there for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Manila newspapers report Monday that the Abu Sayyaf group, fighting for a Muslim state in the south of the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines, held the 13 Christians after they arrived at the hideout against police advice.

Led by a renowned television preacher, Wilde Almeda, the Jesus Miracle Crusade Ministry group went to plead for the militants to release 20 foreigners captured 72 days ago at a beach resort on a nearby Malaysian island.

They took 35 sacks of rice with them as a "gift" to the gunmen and, according to reports, also offered $3,000 in return for access to the captives.

When a driver who brought the group to the base returned to fetch them, Abu Sayyaf members told him that the Christians would be staying, "for 40 days and 40 nights for fasting."

A Filipino journalist who accompanied the group but later left was quoted as saying the Christians had arrived at the camp chanting the name of Jesus, singing and praying.

The reporter, Zeny Tan Masong, said the militants had seemed surprised and amused by the episode, and had jokingly danced and clapped their hands as the Christians sang. But they had refused the "prayer warriors" permission to preach, and had not allowed them direct access to the hostages.

She said Almeda had prayed "in the name of Jesus [for] the rebels to release all the hostages peacefully and without shedding of blood."

The gunmen also burned religious pamphlets the Christians brought with them, Masong said. One report added that the Christians' shoes, clothing and bags had been removed on their arrival.

The Philippine Star quoted regional police chief Candido Casimiro as saying terrorist leader Ghalib Andang would not allow the Christians to leave "until all of the 20 hostages are released."

While Andang claimed in a message given to the Christians' driver that the group had asked to remain in the camp, an intelligence official told reporters: "It appears they are being held against their will."

Earlier, government officials urged the Christians to abandon their plans, telling them their safety could not be guaranteed if they went ahead.

In a separate incident, a German foreign correspondent trying to get access to the kidnappers was also captured. Andreas Lorenz, a reporter for Der Spiegel, was seized at gunpoint by four men who had offered to help him gain interviews with the terrorists and hostages.

Escalating demands

The militants seized three Germans, two French, two Finns, two South Africans, a Lebanese, nine Malaysians and two Filipinos on April 23, taking them by boat from the Malaysian resort to a hideout on nearby Jolo island in the southern Philippines.

The area has been surrounded by government troops since then, as negotiations have dragged out.

One Malaysian was released a little over one week ago. It was also reported last week that one of the South Africans had suffered a miscarriage and that all had lost weight on the sparse diet offered by the terrorists.

Abdusakur Tan, a government hostage negotiator, suspended contacts with the militants two weeks' ago for a "cooling-off period" after their demands began to escalate.

Among those demands is a separate Islamic state, the formation of a commission to examine problems experienced by Filipino Muslims living in neighboring Malaysia, and the protection of traditional fishing grounds in the area from large trawlers.

At one point in mid-June Abu Sayyaf also demanded the payment of $1 million in ransom for each of the hostages.

President Joseph Estrada's government is coming under increasing international pressure to end the crisis and recover the hostages.

Abu Sayyaf is the smaller and more militant of two groups fighting for an Islamic state in southern Philippines.

The group is believed to have links to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born militant leader accused by the United States of masterminding the 1998 bombing of American embassies in East Africa.

The larger separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has reportedly also been given funds by bin Laden recently to buy weapons, a Philippines military official claimed last month.

Independent of the Abu Sayyaf crisis, the MILF has for the past two months been engaged in a military conflict with government forces which has seen the worst fighting in the area for more than 25 years.