CHURCH GROUPS in the Philippines decried as “immoral and reprehensible” what they described as the renewed “red-tagging” of religious institutions in the country.
Last week, authorities tagged three religious institutions and an ecumenical faith-based group as “open sectoral organizations” of the communist rebel movement in the country.
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) said the groups are “above-ground organizations” tasked for the “initial recruitment of members from various sectors.”
President Rodrigo Duterte created the NTF-ELCAC in 2018 “to synchronize the utilization of the government’s instrumentalities of power” to end the 50-year communist insurgency.
In a May 29 social media post, the task force tagged National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), and the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) as “open sectoral organizations” of the rebel movement.
Also included listed is the Promotion of Church People’s Response (PCPR).
The task force said the church groups, and other activist organizations, “disguis[ed] themselves as defenders and protectors of the Filipino people but who are, in fact, its most brutal and savage oppressors and most cruel of persecutors.”
It said that “underground mass organizations have been established by the [rebels] inside open sectoral organizations and open alliances for purposes of advancing and supporting the armed atrocities and terrorist activities.”
‘Malicious and unfounded’
Bishop Reuel Norman Marigza, general secretary of NCCP, said the church is “enraged by the audacity of the government to maliciously and unfoundedly implicate churches.”
He said the “red-tagging” is an attack to “our right to the exercise of the freedom of religion, indeed to the exercise of ministries in furtherance of our religious beliefs.”
The NCCP is the largest ecumenical fellowship of mainline Protestant and non-Roman Catholic churches in the Philippines. The IFI and the UCCP are among the council’s ten member churches.
In November last year, the NCCP approved a resolution that condemns “red-tagging” because it “short circuits the fundamental process of democratic discourse and violates due process especially as it curtails, among others, the freedom of expression.”
“What kind of government maligns churches in the middle of a pandemic?” said Bishop Marigza in a statement.
“Instead of espousing unity and working with the people to beat COVID-19, the government spends time and effort naming churches as enemies,” he said.
The Protestant bishop hit the government’s failure to address the “rightful economic demands” of the public that is already suffering even before the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.
“[The government] failed us once again by attacking the churches that have been active in providing services to the communities,” he said.
IFI priest Jonash Joyohoy, executive director of the Ramento Project for Rights Defenders, called on the government to refrain from vilifying the IFI “and from targeting and threatening our clergy and laypeople with repressive acts.”
He said the “malicious” online post “only validates” the real people behind the numerous violent attacks against the church.
The IFI has been the target of various threats allegedly perpetrated by state forces.
Father Joyohoy said the “red-tagging” is a “green light” for state agents to inflict harm and violence against members of the church.
The social media post appeared on the same day the House of Representatives deliberated on the proposed anti-terrorism law.
Under the proposed measure, suspected terrorists can be detained without arrest warrants for 14 days, extendable by 10 days.
State security forces can also apply for permission from the Court of Appeals to conduct 60-day surveillance operations against a suspect, extendable by 30 days.
Provisions in the bill have broader definitions of acts that qualify as terrorism, fewer restrictions on law enforcement, and heightens punishment of convicted terrorists.
Catholic Bishop Arturo Bastes, retired prelate of Sorsogon, said the proposed anti-terrorism law us “dangerous” because it will give “dictatorial powers” to the president.
“Can the men of Congress not feel the danger of giving too much power to this [Duterte]?” Bastes said.
The prelate said there is no need to approve the bill saying existing laws are effective enough to counteract criminal elements and terrorism.
Instead of approving the bill, Bishop Bastes called on legislators to enact laws that will improve the lives of the Filipino people “in this critical period of history.”
“Our poor people are already burdened with poverty and all kinds of suffering. They need positive laws to help them live in dignity and peace,” said the bishop.
Bishop Marigza also warned that the proposed law “will trample upon the rights of the Filipinos to participate and be critical in the public square.”
“It could single-handedly kill democracy and completely close the already shrinking civic spaces we have in the country,” he said.
On June 1, Duterte certified as urgent House Bill No. 6875, which amends Republic Act No. 9372 or the Human Security Act of 2007.
The president said the proposed law will address “the urgent need to strengthen the law on anti-terrorism in order to adequately and effectively contain the menace of terrorist acts for the preservation of national security and the promotion of general welfare.”
Vaughn Alviar, advocacy officer of the Ramento Project for Rights Defenders, said the bill, if passed into law, could be used to intimidate, arrest and jail activists, rights defenders, and citizens who air their grievances against the government.
“It is a disservice to the Filipino people that while citizens grapple with the pandemic … our leaders have failed to stop attacks on activists and locked in on the approval of the anti-terrorism bill,” said Alviar.
He said the government’s “fixation with passing a hostile bill” could lead to “weaponizing” the COVID-19 response to censure and silence dissenters.
“This is nothing but a blatant attempt to discredit our Church, our bishops and priests, laypeople, and church workers who work with underprivileged groups and advocate for a just peace and human rights,” said Alviar.
He called on the faithful to “stand firm and rise up against this grand evil scheme that aims to deprive our Church of pursuing God’s mission.”
“Let us speak courageously and prophetically against forces that corrupt our faith heritage and impede our mission of doing justice,” he said.