Church groups condemn harassment: Defending poor, powerless not a crime

MANILA, Philippines – Several religious groups on Monday, October 8, condemned the "orchestrated campaign" against church workers, peoples' organizations, and human rights activists – including linking them with the New People’s Army (NPA).

In a press conference, Reverend Marie Sol Villalon of the Promotions of Church People’s Response (PCPR) said that helping the poor is not a crime. 

Hindi pwedeng hindi tayo magsasalita dahil ito ang misyon natin, ito ang purpose ng church, ang mag-minister sa mga api at dukha,” she added. 

(We cannot remain silent because this is our mission, the purpose of the church, to minister the poor and abused.) 

Pagadian Bishop Antonio Ablon of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) recalled incidences of intimidation he experiences while working with the marginalized sectors such as indigenous peoples and farmers, among others.  

On September 28, unidentified people vandalized a chapel in Tigbao, Zamboanga del Sur with words linking Bishop Ablon, the IFI, and other religious groups to communist rebels. 

"We can't help but worry and denounce these threat-laden grafitti" Ablon said.

An offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church, IFI has long been involved in the fight for basic social services and against government abuses. 

Ito ang sa tingin namin ang mga dahilan kung bakit na-red tag tayo, kasama ang UCCP, ang IFI, isinama pati ang Rural Missionaries, dahil sa mga programa nila to help others,” Ablon said.  

(These are the reasons why we are being red-tagged, together with the UCCP, IFI, and the Rural Missionaries, because of the programs we conduct to help others.)

Ablon has previously called out President Rodrigo Duterte for destroying the image of the Church.

The United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) called the threats a “clear rehash of an old tactic against peace, justice, and human rights advocates of the imminent dark days of Martial Law.” 

“We see these recent developments as a shameless affront to the church for its strong stance to defend the poor and the powerless, a barefaced desecration of basic human rights,” UCCP Bishop Jessie Suarez said, adding that the church “is not, never was, and will never be communist.”

HARASSMENT. Bishop Antonio Ablon of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente recalls harassment and intimidation he was subjected to. Photo by Maria Tan/Rappler

HARASSMENT. Bishop Antonio Ablon of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente recalls harassment and intimidation he was subjected to.

Photo by Maria Tan/Rappler

Dangerous linking 

Sister Ellen Belardo of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) said that the church groups’ persistent criticism against human rights violations and consistent investigations into these issues may be the reason why they are being targeted. 

The harassment, she added, is alarming as the government, particularly the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), continues to spread and link several groups with the reported “Red October.”

“These can be used as justification to go after rural missionaries, priests, sisters, and lay workers,” Belardo said. “We must be extra vigilant and stand together with the Filipino in exposing and resisting the state attacks against those who oppose [the government].”  

Red October, according to the military, is the reported ouster plot being hatched by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). It has linked others to this plot, including Metro Manila universities, critics of the Duterte government, and other progressive organizations.

Several groups, slammed the red-tagging, adding that these are dangerous especially for students.

Instead of employing “scare tactics,” the Promotions of Church People’s Response (PCPR) said that the Duterte administration should focus on critical issues burdening the Filipino people, including rising prices of commodities, among others. 

“We demand that they answer the very pressing problems of the nation, especially the worsening economic situation as well as the clamor of the poor for land, jobs and social services, and desist from their insinuations of a situation that props up their desire for nationwide martial law,” Villalon said. – With reports from Maria Tan/

Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.