Church groups reject terrorist-funding charges

Last week, the Department of Justice announced it had filed, before the Regional Trial Court in Iligan City, 55 charges of “terrorism financing” against four nuns and a dozen other individuals associated with the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines-Northern Mindanao Region (RMP-NMR).

This is the first criminal case the DOJ has filed under the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. administration, for alleged violations of Section 8 of the Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act of 2012 (RA 10168), implicating religious missionaries and the 53-year-old Left revolutionary movement.

If proven in court beyond reasonable doubt, the charges would entail for each respondent life imprisonment and a fine of not less than P500,000 but more than P1 million. No bail is allowed.

It had found “probable cause” to indict the 16 persons, the DOJ said, based solely on the complaint filed by the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), which inquired into the RMP-NMR bank accounts relying on the sworn statements of two alleged former CPP-NPA members. The AMLC has ordered the freezing of the bank accounts since 2019.

The DOJ claimed not one of the 16 respondents submitted any counter-affidavit during the preliminary investigation of the AMLC complaint.

Curiously, when reporters asked routinely for a copy of the charge sheets, they were turned down. A DOJ official simply cited “privacy” as reason for withholding the document from the public. One newspaper editorial, however, noted that the DOJ “has lost no time broadcasting the filing of the charges against the nuns and labeling the RMP a funder of terrorist groups.”

On Aug. 18, the RMP issued a statement denying the charges. It also questioned the credibility and motives of the DOJ/ALMC witnesses against them.

“Why is the government – especially from Duterte to Marcos II – hell bent in using all resources at its disposal to shut down the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines for good?” the statement asked.

“The DOJ’s charges are based on the testimonies of two so-called surrenderees,” it pointed out, adding: “Based on information obtained by RMP, one of the two has been presented as a former NPA member after authorities arrested her mother. In exchange for her mother’s release, she executed a spurious statement accusing RMP members of channeling funds to the CPP-NPA.”

Asserting they hadn’t done any wrong, the RMP explained its projects underwent “rigorous processes of selection, monitoring and auditing by the respective donors, such as the European Union, the United Nations and many others.” It made certain that RMP “complied with requirements in securing funds for their projects, including audits.”

Various programs in sustainable agriculture, rural schools, disaster risk reduction, health services, defense of human rights and organic farming are among the ministries undertaken by the Rural Missionaries. Thus, they work mostly with the peasants, indigenous peoples and other rural poor residing in hard-to-reach areas. The “demonization” campaign directed by the authorities against them has negatively affected their projects.

Coming to their defense, five bishops signed a statement of the Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum (EBF) denouncing the charges filed against the religious sisters as “baseless and fabricated” and intended “eventually to force them to abandon their mission.”

“The RMP has been doing its mission for decades, already helping the poor peasants and the indigenous peoples in their struggle for fullness of life, justice, peace and human rights,” the EBF attested. “They have empowered these sectors to work against systemic repression and oppression instigated by big business interests in consonance with the government’s anti-people, anti-democratic policies and laws.”

The bishops ended their statement with an appeal for the dropping of charges against the RMP and its affiliates. They also called for the repeal of RA 10168 and other unjust laws.

For its part, the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) National Council decried the inclusion in the charges of its national auditor and secretary-general of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao.

Citing independent checks and reviews by RMP’s funding agencies such as the European Union, NUPL described the charges as “baseless and false…” based on “the mere say-so of polluted and ill-motivated sources and a prejudged examination of the subject [bank] accounts.”

“From our perspective, this is not only weaponization of the law but weaponization against the very lawyers fighting such insidious policy and practice.” NUPL vowed to stand by their accused colleague “in all fora,” as they have done for “persecuted clients” and “colleagues under attack whose only crime is to serve the interests and welfare of the people selflessly and valiantly.”

Founded in 1969, the RMP has been one of the mission partners of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP), who carried out their missionary work in the countryside under difficult and perilous situations during the Marcos dictatorship.

Last month, the AMRSP was reorganized as the Conference of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (CMSP). It issued this statement published in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines website:

“Some among our ranks were red-tagged; irresponsible labels and name-calling will not cow us. To serve the people of God is never wrong.”

Enjoining its members to persevere in their missions, CMSP stated:

“Let us go to the margins and the peripheries, the new frontiers and spheres of our missionary presence – socio-economic, political, religious, cultural and technological – and minister to the vulnerable and the depressed.

“We commit ourselves [to] working to dismantle unjust structures in society and in their place help build new ones in a spirit of reconciliation, justice and peace, as our Christian faith demands.

“As Church, we are challenged by our present time and context to stand for truth… The Church will not and cannot be neutral on moral and ethical issues and concerns.”

It looks like another conflict is brewing between the religious sector and the authorities. This disturbing situation arose because the Duterte regime dropped adherence to international humanitarian law and adopted an anti-terrorism framework in its counterinsurgency program, which the current dispensation has apparently embraced with alacrity.

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Published in Philippine Star
August 27, 2022

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