At Ground Level | Ecumenical church leaders plead for lasting peace

“Engage in transforming conflict and building reconciliation communities.”

Transformation and building new structures of peace: this is the thought-provoking call of Philippine religious leaders even as they are now being red-tagged for their unyielding advocacy.

Into the eighth month of the new administration, the government’s virulent red-tagging campaign is still being waged by the mouthpieces (official or otherwise) of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict – now nominally headed by Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as chairperson.

Of late, they have targeted Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of the Diocese of San Carlos, who continues to decry the unresolved extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders in Negros island. He is also calling for the resumption of the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations, “terminated” by president Duterte in 2017, and for the release of political prisoners, who now number 825. (Among them is Frank Fernandez, the former Negros priest turned revolutionary.)

For his pronouncements, the outspoken bishop took potshots from the NTF-ELCAC duo Lorraine Badoy and Jeffrey Celiz. They quickly labelled his peace advocacy as “diabolical and demonic” during their television program last Feb. 22 on the SMNI news channel.

On March 1, the Philippine Army’s 303rd Infantry Brigade posted a social media statement by Prosecutor Flosemer Chris Gonzales, spokesperson of the Regional TFG-ELCAC, basically echoing the Badoy-Celiz diatribe. He mouthed the militarist line: the government does not negotiate with “terrorists.” (Under Duterte’s watch, the Anti-Terrorism Council had designated the CPP, NPA and NDFP as such.) The only option for these revolutionary organizations, Gonzales added, is “unconditional surrender.”

Bishop Alminaza, unfazed, shot back: “We should never be afraid, but rather be brave in speaking for the truth on behalf of the victims of injustice.”

On March 3, a declaration of “unwavering support” was sent his way from Bishop Colin Bagaforo, president of Caritas Philippines, the social-action arm of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines: “We stand with Bishop Alminaza in his conviction that pursuing peace should not be one-sided, militarized or highly politicized,” adding that it “should be a peace that echoes Jesus’ command to love and encompasses justice for the victims of violence and injustice.”

Bagaforo called on all individuals and organizations “to join us in advocating for an integral and inclusive peace that benefits the common good and uplifts the poor… and let us work together towards a future where everyone can live in peace and dignity.”

“Not only malicious but utterly despicable and malevolent,” the Ecumenical Bishops Forum described the Badoy-Celiz tandem’s red-tagging of Bishop Alminaza, saying that it “endangers the lives of the very people that truly promote truth, justice and peace.”

A broader, explanatory statement of support emanated from the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP), composed of leaders of five institutions/groups of Catholic and other Christian churches.

“We share the same advocacy for peace with Bishop Alminaza,” PEPP declared, citing his being one of the convenors and spokespersons of the Pilgrims for Peace. “We are all with him in his call for the resumption of the peace negotiations between the GRP and the NDFP, and his appeal to free the political prisoners.”

“We take issue that he is being red-tagged for our common ministry for peace,” the PEPP said, which puts Alminaza’s life in danger because “being red-tagged can lead to more serious human rights violations.” That’s why, at the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review on the Philippines’ human rights situation last November, they pointed out, UN member-states, including the US, recommended to the Philippine government to stop the red-tagging spree.

Badoy, Celiz and Gonzales are “espousing a culture of hate and violence, instead of peace and conflict transformation like what Bishop Alminaza is doing,” PEPP warned. Through the NTF-ELCAC, they and the government are labeling the NDFP and its allies as terrorists “despite the fact that [the latter] are waging an armed struggle with a clear political agenda – which is recognized under international humanitarian law.”

In this regard, the PEPP called attention to the following:

• Despite the “massive and expensive” campaigns by the previous administrations to end the armed conflict, it has continued to rage, particularly in the countryside. The conflict has forced residents of the most vulnerable communities, including those in Negros, to abandon their homes.

• “This long-running conflict only mirrors how deeply embedded the roots of the armed conflict are in social injustice. This is precisely the point being raised by Bishop Alminaza.”

• “Such a complex situation demands a comprehensive and systemic response. Thus, it must be addressed at the national level so that the roots of the armed conflict… which include poverty, lawlessness, inaccessibility to social services and inequitable distribution of resources can be tackled through principled dialogue.”

• “If these roots remain unaddressed, the violence in our midst will continue to fester. Ultimately, it is the people who will suffer most.”

“As church leaders, we will always support the call for the resumption of the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations. This is PEPP’s main ministry,” the PEPP vowed. “It is what our faith in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, impels us to do.”

The statement was signed by Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ, PEPP co-chairperson; Rt. Revd. Rex B. Reyes Jr, PEPP co-chairperson and former NCCP secretary general; Minnie Ann M. Calub, acting NCCP secretary general; Rev. Aldrin Penamora, Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches; Sister Mary John D. Mananzan, OSB, OWCC-CMSP and Bishop Emeritus Deogracias S. Iniguez, head of the PEPP Secretariat.

Pursuing their ministry, the PEPP yesterday held their Luzon Regional Ecumenical Church Leaders Gathering in Tarlac City. They also launched the PEPP-Central Luzon.

Under the Marcos Jr. administration, the leaders observed, the NTF-ELCAC has sustained their attacks on “well-meaning organizations and personalities.” And as documented by Karapatan, human rights violations mostly targeted human rights defenders.

“Don’t let violence rule in our midst,” the church leaders pleaded. “We must work together for the promise of Jesus Christ of a just and lasting peace.”

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Published in Philippines Star
March 11, 2023

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