Face to face with violence and death, churches in the Philippines are helping to build peace in a country where armed conflict continues to rage, especially in the countryside. Fuelling an intensified militarization, the conflict in the Southeast Asian nation has taken a heavy toll on innocent civilians.
Along with human rights groups, the churches have raised their voices against the violence and rampage of a four decades-long armed struggle. They also criticize the lack of access to land suffered by legions of farmers, in spite of a supposedly “comprehensive” government agrarian programme.
Many church workers have paid with their lives for their outspoken support of widowed mothers and orphaned children, victims of the government's counter-insurgency war. Their names are among the over 800 victims of extrajudicial killings registered since 2001 by the independent human rights watchdog Karapatan.
One of the best known among them is Bishop Alberto Ramento of the homegrown Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Philippine Independent Church). A strong advocate for workers’ and human rights, Ramento was stabbed to death in October 2006.
Churches' efforts for peace have to face what political analysts call “a militarist culture,” inherited from the dictatorship of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos. He ruled the country under martial law from 1972 until a civilian-backed military revolt ousted him in February 1986.
However, it s tragic, says Anglican priest the Rev Rex Reyes, of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, that succeeding administrations retained many of Marcos’ military generals and other officers.
The rise in the ranks of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the clandestine Communist Party of the Philippines (Maoist), is attributed by many observers to Marcos’ repressive regime, which pushed young activists to join a guerilla warfare being waged since 1969.
In addition to the New People’s Army, there is also the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been seeking to establish an independent Islamic state in southern Philippines since the 1970s.
Although after Marcos’ ousting the New People’s Army ranks have reportedly decreased, the government is still using his military tactics: “draining the water to catch the fish,” intimidating or even executing members of communities suspected of supporting the rebels. The heavy presence of the military in those communities has often endangered the lives of innocent civilians, including hapless women and children, caught in cross-fire.
One church-led initiative, therefore, is to establish “peace zones” in communities where the military and rebels often clash. To do this, church leaders and the concerned community would appeal first to both camps to respect what would be designated as a peace zone, explains the Rev Carlos Mendez, of the Episcopal Church of the Philippines.
Mendez was among the church leaders who met World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev Dr Samuel Kobia and a small ecumenical delegation during their 18-21 November 2007 visit to this predominantly Catholic nation of 86 million people.
“Since neither the military nor the rebels can enter a designated peace zone, the idea is to lessen, if not avoid, civilian casualties, who otherwise may be caught in cross-fire,” Mendez explains.
A peace zone may cover an entire densely populated area or the centre of a town. Mendez says the peace zones established by the church in northern Philippines are being seen as models, which other communities would like to replicate.
In view of the continued state of insurgency, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), which groups ten mainline Protestant churches, has been calling on the government to hold peace talks with the National Democratic Front, a grouping of clandestine organizations led by the New People’s Army and the Communist Party of the Philippines.
But peace talks have been stalled because the Philippine and the US administrations regard the latter two as “terrorist groups”.
“Despite the stalling, we are not giving up our hope that both warring parties will finally resolve the armed conflict on the negotiating table, rather than through the barrel of a gun,” says NCCP general secretary Sharon Rose Joy Duremdes.
The United Methodist Church in the Philippines has recently forged an agreement with Muslim Aid, a Muslim relief and development agency, to protect civilian victims of war, particularly women and children, not only in southern Philippines, but also in other parts of Asia, says Methodist Bishop Solito Toquero.
Another peace initiative comes from the Bishops-Ulama Conference. A grouping of Catholic and Protestant bishops as well as Muslim and indigenous peoples’ leaders, it aims to help build peace in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, the seat of the Islamic secessionist movement.
The Conference designated the last week of November 2007 as “Mindanao Week of Peace”. Through public forums and roundtable discussions, Christians, Muslims and indigenous leaders sought to understand each other beter and find ways of working together.
“Peace is our ultimate goal," says Bishop Antonio Tobias, chair of the Ecumenical Commission of the country's Catholic Bishops Conference. Through conversations with Muslim leaders "we provide a climate conducive to peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.”
The Bishops-Ulama Conference is being replicated in Manila through the newly-formed Priests-Imams Dialogue, says Fr Carlos Reyes, who coordinates the ecumenical and interfaith ministry of the Manila Catholic Archdiocese.
Tobias and Reyes were among Catholic leaders who welcomed the WCC's Dr Kobia and the delegation during an informal dialogue hosted by the Catholic Bishops Conference on 21 November 2007.
Buoyed by the various church-led peace-building efforts in the country, Dr Kobia encouraged Philippine church leaders to give input for an ecumenical declaration on just peace. The Declaration will be one of the outcomes of the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation to gather in 2011 with the theme “Glory to God and Peace on Earth”. The convocation will mark the culmination of the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence.
“I would expect a significant contribution from the Filipino people," Dr Kobia told church leaders, "given your people’s stories of violence and injustice and your struggle for peace and a society in which all Filipinos can live in dignity and equality."
(c) Maurice Malanes is a freelance journalist from the Philippines. Currently a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (ENI), he also writes for the Manila-based Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the Bangkok-based Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN).
With acknowledgments to the World Council of Churches