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Priests among Philippines human rights victims

By Paul Titus

The murder of a Protestant pastor in January and the abduction of another last month underscore the perilous state of human rights in the Philippines. Filipino human rights workers, peasant and labour organisers, politicians and journalists who speak out against government policies are frequently the target of violence or illegal arrest.

Philippine human rights advocates Karapatan secretary general Marie Hilao-Enriquez and attorney Rex Fernandez. Photo courtesy CWS.

In January Pastor Filomino Catambis of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) was shot and killed by two men on a motorcycle.

According to the Uniting Church of Australia, which has a relationship of solidarity and support with the UCCP, 60-year old Filomino was devoted to caring for the poor and disadvantage on the island of Leyte.

He was the second UCCP pastor to be killed in Leyte province in the last two years. Between 2004 and 2006 16 UCCP ministers and members were murdered in the Philippines.

Last month Methodist pastor and human rights worker Rev Mel Abesamis was abducted on the island of Mindoro. He was missing for two days before turning up in jail, where he charged with involvement in an encounter between the Philippine police and the guerrilla New People’s Army a year ago.

Philippine human rights organisation Karapatan says the charges against Mel are “trumped up”. His abduction is similar to that of UCCP Pastor Berlin Guerrero who was abducted and tortured last year, and is now held in a detention camp.

In its 2007 report on human rights in the Philippines, Karapatan says from Jan 1st to Oct 31st 68 people were victims of extra judicial killing by authorities, 26 people disappeared, 245 were illegally arrested or detained, and 7540 were forcibly displaced.

These numbers are actually better than 2006. This is because the government of the Philippines and its president Gloria Arroyo have been put under pressure from the UN and other international bodies to account for the country’s poor human rights record.

Murray Horton is a spokesperson for the Philippine Solidarity Network of Aotearoa (PSNA). Murray says Philippines society is semi-feudal. There are large disparities between the “haves and the have nots”, and much of the country’s wealth is the hands of families with huge land-holdings who live inside walled communities.

“The level of corruption in the Philippines is both unbelievable and blatant. There is nothing subtle about Philippine politics.

“There are no ‘by-your-leaves’ when it comes using violence. If you cross the wrong people, it is not just political or financial pressure that is brought to bear. The first resort of many of those with connections is to have the person killed.

“Legal processes are treated with contempt. Disappearances take place in broad daylight, often by people dressed as police. And the Philippines is the second deadliest country in the world for journalists, second only to Iraq.”

Murray says the enormous social inequality triggered an armed Communist movement in the 1960s, the New Peoples Army (NPA). The NPA still has several thousand armed guerillas and is active at low levels in most parts of the country.

Some 80 percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic. Another 10 percent belong to other Christian denominations and there is a strong Protestant tradition in the country. About five percent of Filipinos are Muslim.

The Catholic Church has both conservative and progressive elements. Some priests have joined underground and democratic national liberation organizations, and former Cardinal Jaime Sin gave spiritual support to popular movements that removed two presidents whose corruption went beyond tolerable limits – Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Joseph Estrada in 2001.

On the other hand, Murray says, members of the paramilitary death squads are often also members of fanatical religious cults. They have a perverted understanding of religion and equate Communism and Satan.

It is not unusual for church workers and Christian communities to be attacked as Communists or fronts for Communists.

The situation in the Philippines is complicated by an independence movement led by Islamic radicals in the south of the country. The US has put both the group spearheading that movement, Abu Sayyaf, and the NPA on its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Nevertheless, Murray says, the Philippines is a vibrant society.

“Filipinos are a highly educated people, and that is part of the tragedy. People are the country’s greatest resource. It has a population of about 90 million people and eight to 10 million of them live outside the Philippines. Remittances from overseas workers is the biggest single element in the Philippine economy.

“There is a new migration of middle class professionals out of the country, and a large number have come to New Zealand. In 2006, migrants from the Philippines were the second biggest migrant group here, after the English. There is no social welfare system in the Philippines so many people completely depend on what they receive from family members working abroad.”

More information on the situation in the Philippines is available on the website of Karapatan (, the Asian Human Rights Commission (, or the Philippine Solidarity Network of Aotearoa (