Filipino churches cry: Help stop the murders!
Ever since Gloria Macapagal Arroyo became president of the Philippines in 2001, at least 835 human rights workers have been murdered in that country. In those six years, the pace of the killings has accelerated, with 207 occurring in 2006 alone.
The killings are being called "extrajudicial," that is, punishment without the permission of a court or legal authority. Nevertheless, separate inquiries by Amnesty International, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), the United Nations and the Philippines government itself have noted the systematic nature of the killings and connected them with government security forces.
According to the Amnesty report, titled "Philippines: Political Killings, Human Rights and the Peace Process," practically all of the victims, both men and women, have been community organizers, church workers, pastors and priests, human rights activists, trade union and peasant leaders, journalists, indigenous peoples activists, elected local officials and political activists.
The murders have taken place throughout the country. In nearly all cases, the modus operandi was the same: victims shot by unidentified men, often wearing ski masks, and riding motorcycles.
The Rev. Edison Lapuz, 38, was killed on May 12, 2005, while he and his wife were resting at her father's house after attending the funeral of his wife's father. Two unidentified gunmen reportedly entered the house and shot Lapuz point blank in the head and stomach. Lapuz was a minister of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, and active in defending the rights and livelihoods of marginalized communities, including peasants and fisher folk.
Attorney Abel Ladera, 45, was shot dead by an unidentified assailant armed with a rifle on March 4, 2005. He was on his way home and had stopped at an auto supply store, when he was killed instantly by a single bullet piercing his heart. Ladera had represented the interests of sugar mill workers and farmers involved in strike negotiations at nearby sugar plantations.
Father William Tadena, 37, a parish priest, was ambushed on March 13, 2005, while traveling in his jeep to celebrate his second mass of the morning. As he slowed his vehicle in response to someone who called out "Father" and waved at him, two men approached on a motorcycle. One of them fired gunshots into his back, neck and head. He later died in a hospital. Tadena was chairman of the Human Rights and Social Concerns Committee of the Diocese of Tarlac.
Irma "Kathy" Alcantara, 44, was shot and killed on Dec. 5, 2005, while she was participating in province-wide farmers and fisher folk conference. She had just left the hotel when two armed men on motorcycles opened fire. A veteran community organizer, she campaigned successfully in the 1980s against the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. More recently, she had helped organize a number of demonstrations.
Rooted in Marcos years
The roots of the violence go back to the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos (1972-1986), when attacks on the church were commonplace.
As the saying goes, 'Politics make strange bedfellows,'" says the Rev. José "Joe" Malayang. Ordained in the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), Malayang served the largest church on the island of Mindanao before moving to the United States. Today he is executive minister of the UCC's Local Church Ministries and a member of the UCC's five-member Collegium of Officers.
During the Marcos dictatorship, Malayang explains, communists, priests and pastors worked together in the anti-Marcos movement. Along with human rights advocates and students, they eventually ousted him in 1986. After that, these groups continued to press for more human rights.
But also, during the Marcos years, the army established para-military groups. Today, Malayang says, the mayors and warlords still have their own armed people, be they army or police. And even though the Communist Party is now legal and can run candidates for office, if people publicly call pastors and human rights advocates "communists" and "leftists," he says, "that's a license to eliminate them."
"My sense is," Malayang says, "that the warlords have their private armies around them. They want to protect their illegal activities and they don't want to give up their power. So when they hear that this pastor or that priest speaks in support of the rights of the poor or speaks against corruption, sooner or later they get eliminated."
Arroyo administration accused
According to the 90-page NCCP report, "Let the Stones Cry Out," aside from those representing the church and faith communities, "the victims have come from all walks of life and include human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists …"
"These incidents … have grown in alarming proportions under President Gloria M. Arroyo," the NCCP report says, "especially because they show a pattern that such cases are taking place in the context of the government's counter-insurgency program and the 'war against terrorism.'"
As vice-president, Arroyo, the daughter of a former Philippines president, assumed the presidency on January 20, 2001, when the incumbent was forced from power amid accusations of corruption. Re-elected in a controversial contest in 2004, results from her most-recent reelection effort on May 14, 2007, were inconclusive at press time, due to widespread violence and fraud allegations.
Five months after she first became president, a Methodist minister, the Rev. Marcelino de la Cruz of central Luzon, was shot to death on May 28, 2001, thus becoming the first victim of the current spate of slayings.
Despite the common features of the attacks, the similar profiles of the victims and the very few prosecutions, the government continues to deny any involvement. It insists there is no state policy authorizing extrajudicial executions, there are no secret "death squads," and the armed forces do not use hired killers.
Military officials also claim that the activists have links to rural Communist rebels, who have fought for independence for nearly four decades.
As concern over the killings spread globally, Arroyo's presidential spokesman told the press that she condemns the killings and "is avowed to face this issue in the domestic and international arena with full transparency and resolve to uphold the law."
In 2006, Arroyo appointed a governmental fact-finding commission to investigate the killings. Also, the United Nations sent an expert to write its own report. Although both reports named a retired Philippine Army general as a "prime suspect behind the extrajudicial killings," Arroyo continues to deny this.
Global church support
"When we look into the faces of human beings, we see the image of God," says the Rev. Sharon E. Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). "So when human rights are violated anywhere, God is offended."
Through their predecessor bodies, the UCC and the Disciples have enjoyed "partnerships" and friendships with the UCCP for more than a century.
"So human rights violations and senseless killings there strike us close to the heart," Watkins says. "We continue to call on the Arroyo administration to do all possible to put an end to the human rights violations and killings."
To that end, the UCC's Michigan Conference is planning to submit a resolution to its Annual Meeting in June. Its purpose is three-fold, says the Rev. Roger Pohl, who has visited the Philippines many times.
"It lifts up the targeting and killing in the Philippines," he says. "It calls on the Conference and our churches to express our concern to our elected officials, and to contact the Philippines consulates here in the United States."
"The Philippines is the largest recipient in Asia of military aid from the U.S.," Pohl says, "and U.S. law expects that military aid will not be used to abuse human rights. But, under the rubric of the so-called War on Terror, it's being used as a justification for the right wing, backed by the military, basically to suppress human rights workers."
In March, two church-led Filipino delegations visited Canada and the United States, respectively. Their message was simple: Help stop the killings.
In Washington, they spoke at Ecumenical Advocacy Days and before a Senate sub-committee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Afterward, they flew to Geneva, Switzerland, to submit their report to the U.N. Human Rights Council and to The Hague, The Netherlands, for the Permanent People's Second Session on the Philippines.
On Capitol Hill, they called for the United States to link military and development aid to the Philippines to the Arroyo administration's record on human rights.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, also urges U.S. government intervention.
"For months, UCC leaders have been calling on the government of the Philippines to vigorously investigate and prosecute the killers and those who support them," he says. "We are outraged at the indifferent response to these pleas, and hope our own government can exert pressure.
"Meanwhile," he adds, "we pray for the families and congregations of those who have been killed among our partner church."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.