A child rights group in the southern Philippines described as “heartless” a government plan to close a Protestant church compound that has been hosting displaced tribal people.
Davao region’s peace and order council has ordered the closure of Haran Compound, which has been providing shelter to tribal families displaced by ongoing military operations.
The compound is under the auspices of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), an evangelical church formed by the union of Protestant Mission churches and institutions in the country.
Governor Edwin Jubahib of Davao del Norte pushed for Haran’s closure, saying the tribal people inside the facility are being exploited by communist rebels.
The center has been accused by government security forces of violating tribal laws and of committing child abuse, illegal detention, and human trafficking.
“They were exploited in Haran and being used for anti-government [purposes],” said Jubahib.
Child rights group Salinlahi, however, said the peace and order council has “insensitively and cruelly disregarded” the plight of the tribal people staying at the church.
Eule Rico Bonganay, secretary general of the organization, said the move against the church institution would make the situation even worse for the people.
“The closure order aims at nothing more but to inflict further harm and trauma, especially on the children,” he said.
Most of the displaced families have been in the compound for almost five years. Many have said they would not return to their homes until the military withdraws from their tribal lands.
Bonganay said the government order to close the compound is based on “recycled and fabricated allegations” against Protestant church officials.
“This is absurd, but it’s not surprising that our government agencies have resorted to this kind of fascist measure,” he said.
Bishop Hamuel Tequis, head of the Southeast Mindanao Jurisdiction Area of the UCCP, said the church would stand firm in its commitment to serving the tribal people.
“The continuing harassment and possible filing of charges against the UCCP Haran mission center is a threat against the commitment of the church to do Christ’s mission of ministering to the oppressed and the marginalized,” he said in a statement.
The bishop said the church compound “has been a home for victims of oppression and injustice, even a place of healing.”
Jong Monzon, secretary general of the group Pasaka, said the resolution to close the compound was only the latest in a series of attacks on tribal communities in the area.
He said the people inside the Haran Compound are evacuees from communities that felt threatened by the increased presence of soldiers.
“They’ve already displaced us from our ancestral land. They’ve also shut down our schools,” said tribal leader Mintroso Malibato.
“Now, they want to shut down the church that has been helping the poor,” he added.
Human rights group Karapatan condemned the resolution of the peace and order council, describing it as “an act of blatant harassment against the displaced people.”
“The only ones who are threatened by the existence of such a facility are those who use faith to serve their own repressive and megalomanic designs,” said Cristina Palabay of Karapatan.
The church compound currently provides sanctuary to at least 500 tribal residents from communities in the provinces of Davao del Norte, Compostela Valley, and North Cotabato.
Through the years, there have been attempts by suspected state forces to forcibly enter the facility, burn down its structures and abduct those who sought shelter in the compound.