Church leaders call on Aquino to address urban poor concerns, human rights violations

“The poor are kept in endless cycles of poverty and are denied emancipation.”


MANILA — This is not her first time to visit the Philippines. Yet, she is still in wonder at how Filipinos living in urban poor communities manage to put up a smile. While people in her own country, which she refers to as “rich on material things,” could not afford to smile.

Rev. Tara Curlewis, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Australia, is among the participants in the pre-assembly of the World Council of Churches in Manila. Last March 25, Sunday, she joined the exposure trips to urban poor communities, which the church is actively supporting.

The exposure trips also included visits to fisherfolk communities, factory workers, migrants, and political prisoners.

“The poor has a lot to teach us about the value of life, relationships and the community,” Curlewis said.

Curlewis, citing the Christian scriptures, said the poor is always with us. It is the job of policy makers to make sure that the gap between the rich and poor would become smaller, not widen it. “People in decision making thinks that the poor gets in the way. They do not see them as part of development,” she added.

Urban poor not a liability

Dr. Deenabandhu Manchala, program executive of the Unity Mission and Spirituality of the WCC, said that visiting the urban poor community of the Corazon de Jesus in San Juan City made him realize how the church is readily available to help displaced families.

Some 123 homes of families were demolished in the community of Corazon de Jesus. A series of “pocket demolitions” had been happening since the 1980s to give way to the government’s plan to build a government city. But the demolition last January 12, 2012, was one of the most brutal in the history of the urban poor struggle, according to progressive groups.

Victims were initially forced to spend the night along a narrow street in front of their former homes, but were told that they could only stay there until 3:00 p.m. the following day. Since then, some 60 families have been staying in the shelter of the Task Force on Urban Conscientization, a mission partner of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines.

Manchala and other participants of the pre-assembly of the WCC listened to the plight of the residents of Corazon de Jesus. He said that after listening to the people’s side of the story, most of the pre-assembly participants were speechless, not knowing if extending their solidarity would be enough to make the residents feel that church people are with them in their struggle for social justice. Instead, one of the participants thanked the residents for making them realize how hard it is to fight for justice, for evangelizing them.

Manchala, who is also a Lutheran pastor in India, said poor people from his country also experience the same treatment from policy makers. “Displacement in India is also very common to give way to infrastructural developments,” he said, “They are being treated as a liability.”

The participants of the exposure trip also visited parish priest, Fr. Frank Ungria, to hear his side of the story, which, according to Manchala, is pretty much the same as the local government’s version of the story. Ungria said the relocation site is the best that the urban poor can get compared to the slums they used to live in.

Manchala said that in relocation sites, there is hardly access to education, transportation and hospital. “The people are kept poor so they do not fight for wages, justice. They are kept poor for cheap labor,” he said, “The poor are kept in endless cycles of poverty and are denied emancipation.”

In a few hours that he joined the exposure trip, Manchala has witnessed three expressions of the church. “First is the one that takes the version of the state. Second, the church that provides support and solidarity in the hour of need and, lastly, the church that is struggling for justice and equal treatment.”

Human rights situation under Aquino

Curlewis, on the other hand, was among the delegates from the international community who visited the Morong 43 when they were still detained in December 2010. The Morong 43 are health workers who were detained upon accusations of the previous administration that they were members of the armed wing of Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army. Most of the Morong 43 were released later in December 2010.

Curlewis was very happy that she got to meet one of the 43 health workers in her exposure trip in a fisherfolk community in Navotas. She said she is struck by the fact that a person who has not only been marginalized but also tortured still has the spirit to help the urban poor.

“She is modeling the values of the church,” she said.

Curlewis also expressed her disappointment that gross human right violations continue under President Benigno S. Aquino III, despite his promise of change during his presidential campaign. His failure to address and, even provide a conducive environment for such abuses is “incomprehensible.”

She added that Aquino’s performance on the prevailing impunity on cases of extrajudicial killings is “unsatisfactory.” Citing the case of the Ampatuan massacre, one of the bloodiest killings in the country that left 54 dead (32 were media workers), where it would reportedly take a thousand years before the perpetrators of crime will be brought to justice, “is a mockery to what social justice is.”

She also cited the case of the victims of martial law, to whom justice remains elusive until now. “The wheels of justice in the Philippines seem to be winding backwards.”

Curlewis said she would have preferred to say these things in person to President Aquino but even Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, secretary general of the World Council of Churches, was denied the opportunity to do so. Tveit was scheduled to meet with Aquino in Malacañang on March 28 but the meeting was cancelled at the last minute.

Tveit, in a previous report, said he is “disappointed because it would have been a tremendous opportunity for the president and us to talk about matters that are highly important to the Church and the Filipino people.”

“The Churches of the world are walking with the people here. It is part of our journey. Churches will continue to visit to check if respect for human rights is observed and would continue to advocate for justice,” Curlewis said, “We would not just come and go. We will continue to go back here.”

Church as a movement

Manchala said that during the time of Jesus, those who spoke the truth were killed. He added that it is a “risky” and “costly” price to pay to educate the people, which, according to Curlewis, is being practiced by church people in the Philippines and the number of human rights violations, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances being committed against them is proof of this.

Reyes said the church, which is usually the people’s last resort in times of need, is also being attacked, citing the case of Fr. Cecilio Lucero, a Roman Catholic priest and Fr. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio, an Italian missionary, who were killed on September 6, 2009 and October 17, 2011, respectively.

He added that when the church is doing its share in fighting for social justice, it is usually seen as meddling into the affairs of the government. “How convenient it is to dismiss the church’s advice to build a better world,” he said, “We do not have plans to take over the government. We just want a space for the marginalized.”

Reyes said that the Church is often at the point of “choosing between a church that is part of the movement or to be part of a monument.”

“It is the responsibility of the church to educate the people of their rights, especially in our context, culturally speaking, where there is hardly a concept of human rights. We must enable the people to assert for their rights and for their space,” Manchala said. (

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