World Day of Prayer Reveals Anguish in the Philippines

World Day of Prayer Reveals Anguish in the Philippines

On March 2 Renato Torrecampo Pacaide was walking with his stepdaughter Michelle and her one-month old baby when motorcycle-riding gunmen pumped bullets into his head and body.  Michelle and the baby were unharmed but Renato died on the spot.  Renato, a 53-year old member of the UCCP Kiblawan, Davao del Sur (Mindanao) and provincial coordinator of Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) Party.

Please continue to keep our brothers and sisters in the Philippines in your prayers and support them in their work to find justice for Renato and all victims of extra-judicial killings.

On March 2 Renato Torrecampo Pacaide was walking with his stepdaughter Michelle and her one-month old baby when motorcycle-riding gunmen pumped bullets into his head and body.  Michelle and the baby were unharmed but Renato died on the spot.  Renato, a 53-year old member of the UCCP Kiblawan, Davao del Sur (Mindanao) and provincial coordinator of Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) Party.

Please continue to keep our brothers and sisters in the Philippines in your prayers and support them in their work to find justice for Renato and all victims of extra-judicial killings.

It was an early morning phone call from the Philippines that woke Bishop Eliezer Pascua on the day he would address a World Day of Prayer service in Sacramento, California. The General Secretary of the United Church of Christ, Philippines listened as the caller told of the latest killing just hours earlier – another UCCP member gunned down in the streets. The murder of Renato Torrecampo Pacaide, 53, who was secretary general of a peasants movement in Mindanao, brought to 835 the number of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines in five years. Of that number, more than 2 dozen church people and clergy have been killed including a United Methodist pastor. The UCCP has been the hardest hit of the denominations.

Bishop Pascua, standing behind photos of some of the victims, spoke to the audience at Westminster Presbyterian church and in a voice vexed and sorrow-filled, quoted from the Psalms: “How long O Lord will you forget us…but we have trusted in you. We believe God is present.”

This year’s commemoration of World Day of Prayer on March 2 was a chance for the ecumenical community to spotlight an underreported story being played out on streets and in villages across the Philippines. Stories like that of Noli Capulong, a youth leader in the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, shot and killed last May as he headed to bible study.

The Rev. Dennis Duhaylungsod of Filipino American United Church of Christ in Fremont, who worked with Capulong, told of the 20-year-old, killed on the day his mother sponsored a resolution to stop the killings in the Philippines.  Holding up a black and white photo of Noli, Duhaylungsod said of the young man’s apparent crime, “He attended a community meeting to help organize the village [to start] their own drug store.”

For Deborah Lee of the PANA Institute, which studies leadership development in Pacific Asian and North American Religion, the day of prayer was all about faith, justice and human rights in the Philippines. “It is time to focus on human rights abuses [and] the killings of unarmed civilians who because of their political positions to stand for the poor, are being assassinated by their own military.”

Lee’s comments echoed those by United Methodists from the California-Nevada Conference (region) just back from a 10 day fact finding mission to the Philippines. Laddie Perez-Galang from South Hayward UMC traveled with 16 others to three different regions of the country. Each group heard unique stories, but with brutal similarities. Stories of peasant laborers killed in rice fields, of torture and mass killings.

Perez-Galang said the team heard reports of church workers being identified with the New People’s Army, the armed extension of the Communist Party of the Philippines, because they were helping secure the civil rights of farm workers. Reportedly, that connection was providing the military with its license to kill. “The military government is taking advantage of uneducated people who do not know their rights,” said Perez-Galang. “If they speak up they are arrested and killed. And if educated people inform them of their rights they are marked or labeled as either NPAs or communists.”

The government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has conducted investigations into the killings, but according to the group Human Rights Watch, a climate of fear and a lack of cooperation by military authorities have made the probe ineffective at best. Victims and their families are afraid to come forward for fear of police reprisals.

The Rev. Michael Yoshii, a co-coordinator of the Cal-Nevada UMC team said for some, neither fear, nor distance could silence them. “Some people walked 6 hours to come and be interviewed by our group. They were under watch and their safety was not insured in many cases.”

Bishop Beverly J. Shamana, of the California-Nevada Conference (region) was also on the fact-finding mission. She said what lies ahead for the group is the task of education and advocacy. “There is a lack of information, and international classicism is at work,” said the Bishop. She noted that because the killings happened in the underdeveloped country of the Philippines, and not in some place in Europe, the stories of human rights atrocities were not receiving the attention they deserved.

“Our representatives and many communities who care simply don’t know yet. And so it is up to us to get the word out and get people educated, get them moving.”

The decision to host the World day of Prayer at Westminster Presbyterian was a strategic one. The Spanish-Mediterranean styled church in downtown Sacramento sits in the shadow of the California State Capitol.

Rev. Larry Emery, one of the event’s co-ordinators, challenged the audience to make a difference. “We must hold our representatives in Washington accountable for the aid sent to our overseas allies in the name of American people, and to insure that aid is not used to oppose legitimate opposition to government, no matter their political public view, no matter their religious affiliation.” Emery called for letter writing campaigns to Senator Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate Foreign Affairs Sub Committee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. “Write and call your senators. Urge them to conduct a thorough and complete hearing into the human rights violations to determine whether the military is being used to threaten the civil rights and the very lives of the citizens of that nation.”

Following the service Emery invited worshippers to carry flowers to the state capitol and leave them, along with the photos of those killed in the Philippines on the capitol’s steps.

Rev. Yoshii summed up the purpose of the day and the mission to the Philippines. “We are working out our mutual, collective salvation; understanding that our salvation is bound up in our support and solidarity of each other. None of us is free until we are all free.”

Yoshii says members of the Fact Finding Mission, Bishop Pascua, and a delegation of religious leaders from the Philippines will join organizers of the World Day of Prayer going to Washington D.C. March 12-14 for an international conference addressing the human rights abuses in the Philippines.  “As a result of the grass roots clamor to raise consciousness of the extra-judicial killings, the offices of Rep. Tom Lantos, Chair of the International Foreign Relations Committee and Senator Boxer have agreed to meet with our delegation and are working on arrangements for special briefings to include public input.”  

World Day of Prayer is an ecumenical movement of informed prayer and prayerful action that was begun by Christian women in the 1920s and is now carried out in more than 170s countries and regions. It is held on the first Friday of March and welcomes all people.

Philippines church persists despite political killings
‘Filipinos know how to sing and cry at the same time,’ leader says

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 (Maria 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.”