20 People Dead, Dozens More Wounded After Two Bombs Hit Cathedral During Morning Mass in Southern Philippines

A military spokesman said one of the bombs exploded inside the church, while the other exploded in a nearby parking lot as congregants rushed outside. // Armed Forces of the Philippines

Two bombs exploded at a cathedral in the southern Philippines on Sunday, killing 20 people and wounding scores of others, officials said.

The attack on the island of Jolo came less than a week after voters rejected its inclusion in a Muslim autonomous area; the referendum was overwhelmingly approved in other parts of the Mindanao island group, which includes Jolo. The government of the mainly Catholic country has for decades been fighting Islamist separatist groups like Abu Sayyaf and the Islamic State.

The blasts occurred in the morning as people were gathered for Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, the capital of Sulu Province, said Col. Gerry Besana, a spokesman for the military. The bombs were believed to be homemade.

He said one of the bombs exploded inside the church, while the other exploded in a nearby parking lot as congregants panicked and rushed outside.

Chief Superintendent Graciano Mijares, the regional police commander, said on Sunday that 20 people had been killed, five of whom were soldiers guarding the church. Earlier, the police had put the death toll at 27. Eighty-one others were wounded, including 16 police officers and members of the military.

Delfin N. Lorenzana, the Philippine defense secretary, said troops were at a heightened alert level and were securing all places of worship.

“We assure our people that we will use the full force of the law to bring to justice the perpetrators behind this incident,” he said in a statement.

In a series of bulletins shared in chat rooms on the app Telegram, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. The group said the cathedral had been hosting a “polytheistic gathering.” ISIS members, pointing to the doctrine of the trinity, argue that Christians are not true monotheists.

The cathedral in Jolo has been a frequent target of a small group of militants affiliated with Abu Sayyaf and the Islamic State. In 2010, two separate grenade attacks rocked the church, though no one was reported hurt. Three years later, two churchgoers were wounded in a similar attack.

Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for some of the worst attacks in the Philippines in recent decades, including kidnappings, bombings and beheadings of foreign and local hostages. That includes the country’s deadliest terrorist attack, a 2004 bombing of a passenger ferry in Manila Bay that killed over 100 people. But the military has often played down Abu Sayyaf’s strength, putting its numbers at fewer than 500.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Jason Gutierrez