By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by Linda Bordoni and Robin Gomes
MANILA, PHILIPPINES (BosNewsLife) -- Two bomb blasts shook a Catholic cathedral in the troubled southern Philippines where Islamic militants are active, killing at least 20 people and wounding some 80 others, police officials said.
The first explosion went off inside the Cathedral of 'Our Lady of Mount Carmel' in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, while worshipers gathered for Mass, according to witnesses and authorities. It was followed by a second blast outside, which was detonated as security forces rushed to the scene.
Debris and bodies were seen lying on a busy street outside the cathedral, which was hit by bombs in the past.
Police and the military confirmed that the casualties included both troops and civilians. In a statement, the government pledged to hunt down the attackers "until every killer is brought to justice and put behind bars." The "ruthless perpetrators" will be shown "no mercy," the government warned.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte condemned the bombing as an "act of terrorism."
Pope Francis expressed his "firmest reproach" about the attacks and prayed that the Lord would “convert the hearts of the violent and grant the inhabitants of that region a peaceful coexistence”.
Speaking in Panama on the last day of World Youth Day 2019 the pontiff remembered the victims and noted that it brings “new mourning to this Christian community” in the heavily Muslim area.
Elsewhere, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called "for the perpetrators of these crimes to be swiftly brought to justice."
The Philippine Catholic bishops expressed outrage about the "act of terrorism” and offered their condolences to the families of the dead and the injured. “We condole with the families of the several soldiers and civilians who were killed by the explosions,” Archbishop Romulo Valles, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said in a statement.
“We also express our sympathies with those who were wounded and extend our solidarity with the rest
of the church-goers inside the Cathedral and the rest of the church community in the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo.”
Sunday's church attack was one of the deadliest in recent years in a region plagued by instability. Jolo island has long been troubled by the presence of Abu Sayyaf militants, who are blacklisted by the United States and the Philippines as a terrorist group following years of bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest violence.
However, the blasts came at a time when the region voted this week in a referendum aimed at bringing peace to the area after nearly five decades of a separatist rebellion that left some 150,000 people dead.
The vote for the so-called Bangsamoro Organic Law, ratified this week, created an autonomous region in the Muslim-heavy region of Mindanao. The area is to be ruled by a transitional authority before a regional government is set up.
Although most of the Muslim areas approved the autonomy deal, voters in Jolo in Sulu province rejected the legislation but would still be considered part of the autonomous region. Analysts say it will be difficult to implement the law in that part of the area. The province is home to a rival rebel faction that opposes the deal and smaller militant cells that do not participate in any peace process. (BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos contributed to the story).