EXPLOSIONS set off during a Mass inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the city of Jolo, south Philippines, have killed at least 20 people and injured 100 others.
Ucanews.com reported the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the January 27 bombing.
Apostolic administrator of Jolo Fr Romeo Saniel said those who perished “died for their Christian faith”.
“They bravely stayed in Jolo in spite of the threats and insecurities,” he said.
“No words can describe the sorrow and pain that we feel these days.”
In a statement by Archbishop Romulo Valles, speaking on behalf of the bishops’ conference, the Church leaders condemned the terror attack.
They offered their condolences to the families and soldiers killed.
“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, Archbishop Valles said.
But he also urged not to sow division between the Islamic and Christian faith groups.
“We ask our Christian brethren to join hands with all peace-loving Muslim and indigenous people communities in the advocacy against violent extremism,” he said.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Gerry Besana said investigators had recovered closed-circuit footage of the bombers just before the attack.
Islamic State, which often claims responsibility for acts of terrorism, issued a statement claiming two suicide bombers detonated explosive belts inside the church and near its entrance.
The first blast left bodies strewn on the floor amid destroyed pews.
A second explosion near the entrance shortly after killed at least five soldiers trying to help the wounded.
The attacks come after months of increasingly hostile comments from Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte aimed at the Catholic Church and clergy, particularly bishops who opposed his violent stance against drugs.
In December last year, President Duterte told people to “kill” the bishops.
Though this statement was later rescinded by the president’s office, it was one of many public condemnations the president has made on the Church.
However, the Philippine government said it vowed to hunt down the perpetrators.
“We will pursue to the ends of the earth the ruthless perpetrators behind this dastardly crime,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
“The law will give them no mercy.”
Pope Francis also expressed his sorrow over the attack.
“I raise my prayers for the dead and wounded,” the Pope said in Panama, where he was attending the World Youth Day celebration.
“May the Lord, Prince of Peace, convert the hearts of the violent and give the inhabitants of that region a peaceful co-existence,” he said.
In a joint statement, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo and Archbishop Angelito Lampon of Cotabato described the bombing as “the most heinous desecration of a sacred place”.
Cardinal Quevedo, who retired as Archbishop of Cotabato in November, once served as parish priest in Jolo.
Archbishop Lampon was apostolic vicar of Jolo for a time.
“As former religious leaders of Jolo, we totally condemn the criminal bombing of Jolo cathedral,” their statement said.
The attack “on a sacred day and at a sacred moment of worship” was “the action of evil people with utter disregard for the sacredness of human life and of human dignity”, they said.
In the wake of the attacks, many are looking at the Islamic population centres with scrutiny.
Mujiv Hataman, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, a cluster of largely self-ruled islands in the south Philippines, told ucanews.com only Abu Sayyaf had the means to carry out the attack.
Abu Sayyaf is a small militant group associated with Islamic State. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a group seeking its own autonomous government, said it would conduct its own investigation of the attack.
“We are not dividing people,” the group’s chairman Hadi Murad Ibrahim said.
“In fact, we are uniting Muslim and Christian people.”