By Robin Gomes
Twenty-two people were injured in the explosion, including 12 soldiers who were patrolling the church, a security measure adopted during the Christmas holidays. Another bomb went off a short distance away injuring a passer-by.
“It is a cowardly act on the eve of the Christmas celebrations,” said Father Zaldy Robles, a Catholic priest of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Cotabato. “The Church strongly condemns these attacks on people and churches” he told the Vatican’s Fides news agency.
Father Robles said that the blast took place when Mass was underway. In panic the people sought refuge in the cathedral.
Despite the climate of tension and fear, church leaders urged the local population “not to be afraid to celebrate Christmas with joy and courage”.
In another blast in Upi town in Maguindanao province injured two people. According to local police, a second bomb was hurled at a police station but did not explode.
While the military and police are investigating the incidents, authorities have appealed to the public to stay alert and report anything suspicious.
The mayor of Cotabato, Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, said, “security measures have been strengthened”.
Insurgency and terrorism
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks.
According to Major Arvin Encinas, spokesman for the Western Army Command in Mindanao, terrorist groups such as the “Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters” (BIFF) or linked to the self-styled “Islamic State” (Isis) could be behind the attacks.
The Philippines is plagued by violent insurgencies, including a Muslim-led separatist uprising in Mindanao that has killed some 100,000 people.
Though a landmark peace deal with the largest of the rebel groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, was sealed in 2019. However, a number of factions were excluded. They include the BIFF and Abu Sayyaf, a kidnap-for-ransom gang that has been behind some of the nation's deadliest attacks.
In December last year, 2 people were killed and 35 wounded in Cotabato after a bomb went off outside a shopping mall, which was also blamed on ISIL-linked groups.
In January 2019, 27 people were killed and 777 wounded when two bombs exploded during Sunday mass at the cathedral on Jolo Island, an area considered a stronghold of Islamist militants.
Earlier in May 2017, pro-ISIL gunmen attacked an seized the city of Marawi, sparking a five-month battle that left more than 1,000 people dead.