Reflections on Churches’ witnessing with human rights victims

Asian Ministries Coordinator
Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ)

At the time I was based in the Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in the Philippines, local villagers including indigenous people who resisted mining operations and militarization have been forcibly displaced from their communities.

The seminary served as sanctuary for the refugees, despite the threat of harassment and intimidation by state security forces. For the students’ theological training, they were encouraged to be aware of the plight of the poor and marginalized sectors, especially the victims of human rights atrocities.

I believe the UTS support for the refugees is one good example of church solidarity with the victims of injustice. Walking and working with the poor is not optional. It is in fact, a basic role and sacred duty of the church.

Prophetic Voices Silenced

During my ministry in the Philippines I have personally met some of the clergy and lay church workers whose lives were brutally taken as they were known to be outspoken critics of government corruption and human rights abuses.

One of them was The Most Rev. Alberto Ramento, Bishop of the Philippine Independent Church, an active supporter of striking sugarworkers of Hacienda Luisita. He was not only a Bishop of the Church – he was a dearly beloved Bishop of the Poor. Assassins broke through the rectory where Bishop Ramento was staying at around 4:00 am of October 03, 2006 in the Parish of San Sebastian, Tarlac City. He was awakened in his sleep when the assassins had entered his room and stabbed him seven times to death.

Hacienda Luisita is one of the country’s biggest land monopoly controlled by the Cojuangco-Aquino clan. Bishop Ramento was added to the long list of poor peasants and genuine land reform advocates who were brutally silenced by those who are determined to maintain their excessive wealth at the expense of the poor.

Global Voices Denounce Incessant Killings

As hundreds of Filipinos became victims of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances during the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration, my co-workers in the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK) along with other member-churches of the World Council of Churches (WCC) expressed indignation over the Philippines human rights crisis.

As current Asian Ministries Coordinator of Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ), I was invited to attend the International Conference for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (ICHRPP) last July in Manila through the support of Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa (PSNA). I was very happy for the chance to return to my second home, where I spent more than 7 years of ministry in Southern Luzon, one of the regions with the highest number of documented rights abuses.

It was a big conference of over 200 people from around the globe. It is such an honour to be part of a global network including churches actively supporting the Filipino people’s quest for justice and peace. The ICHRPP deplored the fact that far from his 2010 election promise to deliver justice for human rights victims of past regimes, Pres. Benigno Simeon Aquino’s 3-year administration now holds a record of ZERO conviction of perpetrators of rights abuses and added more victims: 142 extra-judicial killings, 540 illegal arrests, 76 cases of torture, 30, 678 forced evacuations, 31,417 cases of threats/harassment/intimidation, and 27,029 cases of use of schools, medical, religious and other public places.

NZ Churches in Solidarity with Philippines

The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) was born out of the conference which I attended in Manila.

Coming back to New Zealand, I pledged to watch out Philippine situation, engage in solidarity action and strengthen migrants’ ministry particularly in Auckland and Christchurch, where hundreds of Filipinos are coming over for project rebuild. Our efforts to support the clamor for justice and peace in the Philippines include the following actions:

  • On 19th August, Rev. Stuart Vogel and I joined the Auckland Philippines Solidarity (APS) in making paper cranes (Japanese origami) in support of the campaign to Surface James Balao and all victims of enforced disappearances. Based on the ancient Japanese legend that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by a crane, we expressed support for all the families awaiting the return of their loved ones who have been abducted by state agents.
  • On 5th September we sent a joint PCANZ-Methodist letter of concern to the Philippine Embassy regarding the harassment of another pastor of our partner, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), among other persistent rights abuses under the Aquino presidency. We also highlighted call urging the Government of the Philippines to immediately resume formal peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).
  • On 17th October, marking two years since the killing of Fr. Fausto ‘Pops’ Tentorio, PIME, we gathered at St John’s Presbyterian Church to remember the martyrdom and lighted candles for justice for Fr. Pops. Rev. Prince Devanandan of the NZ Methodist Church shared his reflection, “We live today in a world where money has become more important than human life. The military in the Philippines and many countries controlled by the multinationals are only taught to kill those who resist injustice, but not taught to respect human life and dignity.”

In support of the goals of the ICHRP, I vow to hold the Filipino people always in our prayers, and hope to engage more New Zealanders in global ecumenical solidarity actions for justice and peace in the Philippines.

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