The Basilan group of islands once belonged to the Zamboangas, particularly Zamboanga del Sur. It is situated just south of the tip of
the Zamboanga Peninsula in Mindanao, and is separated from Zamboanga del Sur by the Basilan Strait. It is composed of one main island of volcanic origin, and several adjacent islands and islets and coral reefs.
South of Basilan is the Sulu Archipelago with whom it shares the heavy Muslim influence of the region. This situation came about as the original tribes in Mindanao – the Tausugs, Badjao, Yakans and Samals – were
pushed down south by the colonization on the mainland of Mindanao, and they finally settled in the Sulu Archipelago and in the Basilan Islands group.
The Prelature of Isabela in Basilan was created on October 12,
1963, and comprises all territories constituting the civil jurisdiction of Basilan Province, including Basilan City, its present capital. It covers a land area of 1,359 square kilometers, and its Catholic
population of 83,400 is 31 per cent of total. Its titular patron is the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Bishop Jose Ma. Querexeta, CMF, was the first bishop of the Prelature of Isabela. As he established
parishes and schools for Muslims and Christians alike, the bishop worked for the integration of Christians and Muslims. He set up projects that would benefit the Muslims as he built churches for the Christians.
The Mindanao War of the 70's shattered the prelature's dream of Christians and Muslims living peacefully side by side. This was aggravated by the kidnapping of a Spanish Claretian priest in 1987 who had devoted
many years of his priestly life in Basilan attending to the spiritual needs of Christians and the economic needs of the poorer Muslims.
Bishop Romulo de la Cruz became the Prelate Ordinary of Basilan in 1989 upon the
retirement of Bishop Querexeta. He arrived on the scene when Islamic Fundamentalism was on the rise and the Abu Sayaf, a violent fundamentalist group of armed adherents, was born.
One Franciscan brother and one
Claretian priest were kidnapped in 1992 and 1993 respectively. Not even the local clergy was spared.
Father Cirilo Nacorda was kidnapped on June 8, 1994, and was released three months later, but not before
fifteen of his companions were killed and the remaining 25 captives, mostly teachers and health workers, were finally released.
Kidnap for ransom remains a genuine threat for church workers and priests in
Basilan. But admirably, not a single one of them, including the lay workers, are intimidated by it, or retreat because of fear. The prelature personnel, from the lay workers up to the bishop himself, are one
in standing firm on no ransom for kidnapping.
Perhaps because of the semblance of "persecution" of Christians, who are very often the victims of the present instability in Basilan, there is also perceived a
unity and solidarity among them. Lay people are exceptionally and spiritually alive, and are always willing to work and get involved.
The impending establishment of a Provisional Government in Mindanao under the
Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) hangs like a sword of Damocles over Basilan Christians who have no wish to be part of the Provisional Government.
For its vision, the church in Basilan hopes to proclaim a
Christian understanding of the human person, of society, and the common good of all the people of Basilan, considering its divergent cultures, religions and ideologies.
For its mission it aims to promote a "new
spirituality" that unites people in faith and in the Lord, in justice and charity towards neighbor, in a personal conversion that could bring about a change in societal structures. It is the
perception of the church in Basilan that the renewal of a vision and a mission, as initiated by the Plenary Council of the Philippines II, is not entirely new for Basilan Christians because of their minority
situation. Rather it is a question of deepening this renewal in order to strengthen one's own evangelization, to be able to pass this on to one's neighbor, be he Moslem or Christian.