MARAWI, Philippines — For five days and six nights, Mother Superior Marie Madeleine Ledesma and her nine Carmelite nuns were held at gunpoint deep in the jungle by 160 Muslim rebels armed with machine guns, rifles and grenades.
There was a price of two million pesos ($100,000) on their heads. The leader of the kidnapers--a disgruntled Muslim government official who has named himself Commander Rommel, after the renowned World War II German tactician--had warned in a letter that if the Philippine military intervened to free the nuns, "we may be forced to harm them."
But just after dawn Thursday, when the mother superior and her flock were freed unharmed in this Islamic city 510 miles south of Manila, Sister Marie Madeleine, 44, said the past five days had been "a dream come true."
Catholic Nation Shocked
As they feasted on candy, cookies and cake beneath yellow ribbons, it was hard to imagine that these nuns had been dragged out of their cloistered hilltop convent into the real world in a double kidnaping that shocked and frightened this overwhelmingly Catholic nation.
Looking anything but frightened themselves, the sisters hugged their friends, laughed and beamed as if they had been to heaven itself--and, indeed, every one of them said she was convinced they had.
"For a long time we have dreamed of this--prayed for this," the mother superior said in an interview with The Times just an hour after the 10 cloistered nuns were released by their captors.
For years, she said, "we just sat on top of our hill and . . . dreamed about the Maranaon people (the ethnic name for the region's Muslims) coming for us," in order to create a dialogue between Christians and Muslims. "And then one night, they came and fetched us. We shared with them their food, their lives, their dreams and their love.
"This morning, one of them apologized: 'Sister,' he said, 'We're sorry for having done this to you.' But we said, 'No, no, thank you for the privilege.'
"You know, when we were in the jeep coming back this morning, we said to one another, 'We are back on Earth. We have left heaven. But we will never be the same. We have touched our dreams.' "
Behind the Thursday morning celebration of both captivity and liberation, though, there was a darker reality to what is, at the moment, potentially the most explosive problem facing President Corazon Aquino.
Ignited Tensions Feared
Local religious and military leaders fear that the kidnaping of the nuns and of American missionary Brian Lawrence, who is still being held, may well ignite long-simmering tensions between the region's majority Muslims and its Christian population, which predominates in the rest of the Philippines.
There have been more than 30 kidnapings in the last six months in the troubled area on the southernmost island of Mindanao.
Lawrence, 30, who was kidnaped Saturday night, just 24 hours after the nuns, is thought to be in the hands of a separate group linked to a longtime Muslim warlord.
In a handwritten note and a cassette tape addressed to his wife earlier this week, Lawrence said the leaders of his captors, who call themselves Commanders Fidel Castro, Kadafi and Khomeini, have vowed to kill him if the government military intervenes.
Quoting Commander Castro, Lawrence wrote, "He says that if the military tries to get me, I will be killed. So let's not do that."
Challenged by Aquino earlier this week to solve the problem quickly, the Philippine military deployed an entire battalion of soldiers Thursday night around picturesque Lake Lanao, in the area where both Lawrence and the nuns have been held.
Government negotiators--most of them Muslim clan chiefs and relatives of the alleged warlord, Sultan Mohammed Ali Dimoporo--have been negotiating around the clock for the release of Lawrence, a native of Madison, Wis. His pregnant wife, Carol Anne, said in an interview Thursday that she is praying for her husband's return and articulated the fears of the region.
"One thing I really hope will not come out of this is tension between the Christians on Mindanao and the Muslims," said Carol Anne Lawrence, herself a missionary from western Pennsylvania who has been staying in a private home with several other American missionaries in the nearby city of Iligan since the kidnaping.
"It is just a small group of Maranaons who are causing all the trouble," she said.
Responding to the alarm, Filipino religious leaders on both sides have been struggling to prevent a resurgence of the religious hatred that triggered a bloody Muslim secessionist war in the region in the 1970s, when an estimated 50,000 people were killed.
Despite claims by Aquino on Thursday that the release of the 10 nuns "has added credibility to our policy of nonviolence," Roman Catholic Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud, the leader of the region's 20,000 Catholics, said, "I am still afraid this might erupt into something else."
'Christians Are Angry'