Philippines church persists despite political killings

Philippines church persists despite political killings

‘Filipinos know how to sing and cry at the same time,’ leader says

‘Filipinos know how to sing and cry at the same time,’ leader says

by Jerry Van Marter, Presbyterian News Service

Bishop Eliezer Pascua of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) is a man on a mission. And this one is literally a matter of life and death.

Early in his current visit to the United States to raise awareness of the political violence devastating his country, Pascua was awakened in Sacramento, CA, to the news that yet another UCCP human rights worker had been gunned down in the streets. Renato Torrecampo Pacaide, 53, was secretary general of a peasants movement on the island of Mindanao.

His death brings the toll of politically-motivated killings in the Philippines since 2001 to 835. Of those, 25 are church workers – 15 of them from the UCCP.

“Those who were killed had several things in common,” Pascua told the Presbyterian News Service in a March 8 interview here before he left for a conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by Church World Service on the violence in the Philippines. “They were all activists for the rights of the poor, they were all critical of the policies of the government, and they were all opposed to the president (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) – particularly in the 2004 elections.

Arroyo, a former vice-president who assumed office in 2001 when the former president was forced from office in a corruption scandal, initially had a reputation as an economic reformer, but she has steadily lost influence to the Philippine military, Pascua said.

In 2004 she was elected president in her own right in elections widely reputed to be rigged in her favor. Elections are scheduled again this spring and Pascua is among those trying to make sure that this time they are fair.

A three-pronged strategy is being pursued by Pascua, other Filipino reformers and their supporters in the U.S., said the Rev. Larry Emery, pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Walnut Grove, CA, in Sacramento Presbytery, which has a mission partnership with the UCCP.

“We want to ask Congress to investigate U.S. foreign aid to the Philippines, to make sure it is not being used to foment these killings,” Emery said. “We want the upcoming elections to be carefully monitored” (the Carter Center in Atlanta has already been contacted); and we want to establish an accompaniment program to help safeguard the lives of our UCCP brothers and sisters.”

Emery described his own experience that points up the value of accompaniment: last spring he and another Sacramento pastor were helping four UCCP pastors deliver medical supplies to a remote village in the Philippines when they were stopped by Philippines military. After being held and questioned for several hours, all six were released. “Afterwards,” Emery recalls, “we were repeatedly told that if we had not
been with them, all four Filipino pastors would have been killed.”

Several investigations – including those by the United Nations and by a commission headed by a highly-respected former chief justice of the Philippines Supreme Court – have attributed the killings to the Philippines military.

The U.N. report flatly declared that Arroyo is either directing the killings or cannot stop the military from committing them. “Certainly she depends on [the military],” Pascua said. “They cover each other’s back, maintaining a certain equilibrium.”

Government and military officials insist that they are not responsible for the killings, that the violence is a result of a number of anti-government insurgencies being waged by various groups around the country.

In such a polarized environment, the UCCP has been named an “enemy of the state” because of its human rights and advocacy work. “We confronted the military about why we’re on their list and they refuse to elaborate,” Pascua said.  “They play innocent and say ‘national security.'”

The UCCP has no choice but to be involved in the economic and political struggles of the Philippines, Pascua said.  “Our constitution, by-laws and statement of faith are the foundations for addressing the current political, social and economic context,” he

“We profess that all persons are created in the image of God, entrusted with creation and so are called to try and create a just, compassionate social order,” Pascua continued. “We believe the kingdom of God can only be present when the hungry, sick, poor and imprisoned are cared for and where love, justice and peace are created.”

Ministry in such a situation can be frightening, Pascua said. “We are very vulnerable because we are only 5 percent of the people and who is in a capacity to protect us? All we can do is bring these crimes against individuals and God to the public’s attention.”

A hopeful sign, Pascua said, is that the dominant Catholic Church is finally beginning to speak out against the killings of religious workers. “At first they wouldn’t acknowledge that church people were being killed,” he said, noting that the Catholic Church has enormous power, wealth and privilege.

Arroyo remembers, Pascua said, that notorious dictator Ferdinand Marcos lost his grip on power when he antagonized the Catholic church. No Catholics are among the 835 victims of the current spate of killings.

“They [Catholics] seem to be acknowledging the killings now, only not enough,” Pascua said, noting a human rights summit that was held at a Benedictine college last summer, but at which the only Catholic speaker was a Benedictine nun.

In spite of the killings and the constant threats, UCCP ministry continues. “Our church is still vibrant and reaching out to people, though we are having trouble making both ends meet,” Pascua said. Despite a 33 percent downsizing of the UCCP staff two years ago, “our schools, seminaries and community outreach programs are continuing,” Pascua said.

“Filipinos know how to sing and cry at the same time.”