Philippines: Priests Turn Into Targets

Francis R. Smith, S.J., is a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University.

Late last year three American servicemen, two active and one retired, were killed in separate but apparently coordinated assassinations on the perimeter of Clark Air Base, 50 miles northwest of Manila.

The next day, 300 miles to the south on the sugar-growing island of Negros, I read the newspaper stories. The incident gave new meaning to a State Department bulletin that American citizens should not travel in certain parts of the Philippines, among them the island of Negros. I chuckled to myself; I was now in double jeopardy. As an American priest would I be shot for my religious or my national affiliation? For as a guest of Bishop Antonio Fortich of the diocese of Bacolod I was in bad company, as far as the Armed Forces of the Philippines and its various instruments were concerned. In fact, this danger from the right far outweighed danger from the left.

A student of "liberation theology," I had gone to the Philippines to make academic questions concrete, especially: What turns Christians committed to the following of the crucified Christ into armed revolutionaries? I found it was not ideology. It is an experience. I could finally say what I heard so many church people in the Philippines say: "I do not agree with the Christians who 'go to the hills' but I understand why."

Bishop Fortich, known to his enemies as Ka (Comrade) Tony, is the winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. But years of attempting a ministry of reconciliation on this island he calls a "social volcano" have given way to a program. The diocese of Bacolod has made a preferential option for the poor and is helping them organize into "Basic Christian Communities." Now, despite the fact that Pope John Paul II came to Bacolod in 1981 and gave a ringing endorsement of the work of the diocese, the attack on Bishop Fortich, his priests, sisters and people, especially the Basic Christian Communities, has intensified.

To be a part of this effort in any way is, even under the democratically elected government of Corazon Aquino, to be suspected of being a communist. Indeed, the Philippines military last year leaked to the Manila press a list of 35 of the Bacolod diocese priests who are alleged communists. I got to know many of them and concluded that the army uses the word communist for anyone who seeks social changes in a society where social change is desperately needed. But the label is used to justify murderous attacks on the Basic Christian Communities.

The bishop's stately residence stands a burned-out shell in the central plaza of Bacolod. I asked a city policeman how it happened. He said that the official report blamed an electrical short--but he did not believe it since there was a power outage at the time.

The bishop now makes his home and offices in a small one-story building on the seminary grounds. Beloved by his priests, the bishop used to have an open house for them on Tuesday nights in a central courtyard of this building. They often stayed late. One Tuesday last May the party broke up early, fortunately. Around 11 p.m. a hand grenade was hurled into the courtyard.

In the southern town of Kabankalan, the church, rectory and high school were burned to the ground. The official verdict there was relatively honest: arson, perpetrated by unknown persons.

Being a priest in such a situation means that if you are outspoken, if you implement the diocese's policy of helping to empower the poor through organizing Basic Christian Communities, then your life is in danger. Or there is another response: One can "go to the hills" to join the revolutionary New People's Army. What is a headline-grabbing occurrence in Latin America, a priest-guerrilla, is a common occurrence in the Philippines. A conservative estimate of the number is five dozen. Many no longer function as priests, some still do. Five of the Bacolod priests have taken this path, among them Luis Jalandoni, who was imprisoned by Ferdinand E. Marcos, fled overseas when released on parole and is now the international representative of the NPA and its political arm, the National Democratic Front. Others remain on Negros and indeed are among the leaders of the guerrillas on the island.

On the face of it the option seems unthinkable. But it is the result of frustration, outrage, anger and obscene injustice.

I witnessed something of this dilemma among some of the priests, but most clearly in a young layman named Aurelio. Earlier this year three members of a cult called the Power of the Spirit appeared in Aurelio's barangay --barrio--in the neighborhood of Himamaylan. Such anti-communist cults are a striking phenomenon of the islands. The most famous is the Tadtad--"cut-cut" in Cebuano--full title, Corazon Sagrado de Jesus. Well-armed, usually with Armalite automatic weapons supplied by the army, they are a sociologist's dream. Combining a primitive animism with Catholicism, they claim under certain conditions to be invulnerable to bullets. This invulnerability is usually assured by wearing some sort of amulet, or a vest inscribed with degenerate Latin texts or, in the case of the Pulahan of Mindanao, a kneecap severed from a victim or stolen from a grave. Some provincial commanders find the cults useful for intimidating peasant communities suspected of aiding the NPA either willingly or under threat.

A barangay with a Basic Christian Community is a prime suspect. This was why Aurelio, his friends and relatives, became targets. Three members of the cult, led by its current guru, Baldomero Lopez, appeared at the cluster of nipa huts in daylight and fired indiscriminately, killing six people and burning huts to the ground. Aurelio escaped by diving out of a window and scrambling into the underbrush. Such massacres are not uncommon and in this case no one disputes the facts. A warrant for the arrest of Lopez is outstanding. What is striking is that Baldomero Lopez is still free--an armed, dangerous man who reguarly visits the City Hall of Himamaylan .

Aurelio wanted justice. He sought the help of the bishop's legal aid office. I was invited to visit Himamaylan with "Star," a young woman paralegal, to witness current Filipino "justice." We traveled the 60 kilometers from Bacolod, not sure that Aurelio would appear for the "preliminary hearing." He was trying to rejuvenate the case by seeking a new indictment of Lopez. Aurelio would have to make his way cross-country to avoid ambush on the roads. If he got to the parish church he would be safe and we would join him there. Aurelio showed up. We drove to City Hall. Guns were everywhere. A Philippine constabulary trooper sat behind sand bags on the first floor with an automatic weapon. The mayor's body guard sat at the door of his office with an Armalite.

The hearing was long, frustrating and, I began to suspect, going nowhere. For me, the real question became: Why was Aurelio risking his life? Is there some insane primitive belief that justice cannot be denied? The day's hearing, conducted largely in English and translated into Aurelio's Ilongo by an interpreter, concluded with the judge saying that he could take no further action on the testimony of one person; if Aurelio came back a week later with corroborating witnesses, the court would listen again.

As we left City Hall, I turned to take a picture of Aurelio. Star, striding hurriedly across the plaza, yelled, "Don't stop. Get to the truck." As we drove toward the parish church, Star unfolded a copy of the warrant for the arrest of Lopez and two others for murder and arson. She said, "Did you see the man in the City Hall carrying an Armalite, wearing a goatee and mustache? That is Baldomero Lopez."

A week later we went back, bringing reporters. So did Aurelio, bringing witnesses. Lopez, not present, followed the proceedings through Nelson Flores, an armed cult member not included in the arrest warrant. Once more, the massacre was described by witnesses. The judge zeroed in on what he regarded as discrepancies in the stories. An observer could almost hear his reluctance to reignite the nearly dead embers of justice. Nothing would happen anyway. Except that the NPA may have still another recruit.

On Dec. 31, wire services reported General Fidel Ramos' latest estimate of insurgency in the Philippines. Claiming progress, Ramos nevertheless acknowledged that no lasting solution will ever be achieved until there are fundamental social and economic changes in Filipino society. My advice: Start small, General. Serve the warrant on Baldomero Lopez.

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