MANILA, Philippines–An Italian priest held for over a month by Muslim rebels in the jungles of the southern Philippines celebrated his first Sunday Mass since his release, thanking those who worked for his freedom.
About 200 people who gathered at a Catholic church in a suburb of the capital, Manila, applauded as Rev. Giancarlo Bossi got up to speak.
Bossi, a 57-year-old missionary from Milan, thanked those who had prayed and supported him during the 39-day ordeal, including the pope and 14 Marines who were killed in a clash with rebels while searching for him.
Bossi was seized July 10 and held in the jungles along the border of southern Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur by rogue members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a rebel group engaged in peace talks with the government.
“I still feel like a prisoner,” he jokingly told the congregation, saying he has been overwhelmed by the limelight and flurry of media interviews.
Police have denied a ransom was paid for the priest, who has worked in the Philippines since 1980 and was seized from Zamboanga Sibugay province, where he had just been reassigned.
They say he was released following negotiations with the rebels and that a massive military manhunt may have also upped the pressure.
At least two police officials, however, said an unspecified amount of money was paid to the kidnappers in return for photographs of Bossi in captivity that served as “proof of life” for negotiators. The money was also to be used for food and any other things he consumed in the jungle, the officials said, requesting anonymity as they are not authorized to talk to the media.
One of the officials told The Associated Press that a possible motive for the kidnapping was to sabotage peace talks between the MILF and the government. The kidnapping was staged by rebel commanders, who have broken off from the rebel front and had links with the Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaida-linked group, he said.
Bossi told the Associated Press in an interview that he was treated well by his captors, whom he said identified themselves as Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, but said he has no plan to pursue criminal charges.
“They never beat me, never threatened me, they were really kind,” he said.
“The only problem was the food–always rice, salt and fish,” said Bossi, looking rested but gaunt.
Boss said he was well guarded at all times, with a rebel often sleeping below his hammock, but that they left him alone when he prayed.
Bossi has said he will return to Italy next month for a few months rest but intends to return to the Philippines to continue his missionary work.
A colleague in Manila, the Rev. Gianni Sandalo, said Bossi may also meet the pope in Italy.