Columbans to continue work

Thu, Nov 12, 2009, 00:00

The Columban Fathers will continue their missionary work in the Philippines, despite the recent kidnapping of Irish priest Fr Michael Sinnott, the order said today. 

The 79-year-old missionary was released last night after being held hostage for 32 days. He was seized on October 11th by six gunmen who barged into the Columban House in Pagadian City in Zamboanga del Sur province, 890km south of Manila.

A spokesman for the religious order said today there was "no question" of the Columbans ending their missionary work in the country.

"The Columbans in the locality will assess the situation and move forward from that, and decide what's best," Fr Malachy Smith said. "We're always living with risk."

Earlier today, Fr Sinnott said he was planning to return to his missionary work.

"In the immediate future I hope to stay on here in the Philippines to go back to do my work. I don't know what the superiors are going to say about that, but that is my own wish," he told RTÉ's Morning Ireland.

"I have no desire to leave, although I don't think they'll kidnap me again. I think if they wanted to kidnap somebody they'd be inclined to go for a much younger man because I was not able always to hike with the speed, and keep going - I often had to rest while they were hiking."

The Columban order praised Fr Sinnott, describing him as "courageous".

"We're delighted that this long saga has ended and ended with the release of Fr Michael, and that he seems to be in fairly good health. All the prayers have been answered," Fr Smith said.

"He's a pretty courageous man and he's very devoted to the mission that he's on. He's building bridges between the two communities, Christian and Muslim, so that's an invaluable contribution. I'm sure it's his dream, and we all pray that the dream for him will continue and be successful."

Fr Sinnott, who was greeted at a Manila airport this morning by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, said he had suffered no ill-health, despite the poor conditions in which he was held.

"During the 32 days although conditions were primitive, I never had any sickness or pains," he said.

He said he had been kept in a swampy area for the first 10 days, with very little room to move around or exercise. He was later moved to a forest area, an eight hour boat ride away, where conditions were better.

Fr Sinnott said his captors had assured him he would not be killed, and did as much as possible to make it easier for him in the conditions in which they were living.

Fears had risen that the Wexford priest was in poor condition due to dysentery, malnutrition and the absence of the medicine he needs following his heart bypass four years ago. However, 10 days into his ordeal, his captors supplied him with the necessary medication for his heart condition.

The Philippine government had blamed the kidnapping on rogue elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The rebel group handed over Fr Sinnott to government officials yesterday.

His kidnappers released a video on October 31st demanding a $2 million (€1.35 million) ransom.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin last night expressed his delight at the release and said no ransom had been paid. "It has been a tough 32 days for everybody concerned but particularly so for those who were waiting anxiously at the end of the phone for news of their loved one," he said.

"As in previous kidnaps no ransom was paid by the Irish Government. To do so would only have jeopardised the vital work of aid workers and missionaries around the world."

Mr Martin thanked the Philippine government, the EU, the US government and the International Red Cross for securing the release.

President Mary McAleese expressed her delight at the release. "He is clearly a man of great resilience, strength and courage and we wish him well as he seeks to recover from such a trying ordeal," she said

Taoiseach Brian Cowen said he was "relieved and thankful" that Fr Sinnott's ordeal was over. "I want to extend my best wishes to him on his safe release," he said in a statement.

"On behalf of the Government, I want to commend the government of the Philippines and our Ambassador Richard O'Brien, and our officials, who have all worked with great commitment and resolve to bring about Fr Michael's release."

Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly, who had been in contact with the MILF over recent weeks in an effort to secure Fr Sinnott's release, said this morning the kidnapping had not been sanctioned by the MILF leadership and the group had wanted to see the priest released as soon as possible.