Church bells in the Diocese of San Carlos in the central Philippines tolled for those who died in a massacre that killed at least 20 people in the town of Escalante, Negros Occidental province, on Sept. 20, 1985.
Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos said the tolling of bells aimed to remind the people that “life is sacred” and that justice must be served for those who perished more than three decades ago.
“We seek to shake the conscience of those carrying out dastardly death operations, at times commanded from above,” he said.
On Sept. 20, 1985, government forces fired on civilians who joined a demonstration to mark the anniversary of the declaration of martial law.
Bishop Alminaza said the martyrs of the Escalante massacre “inspired many to be more courageous in the fight against the dictatorship.”
“Their collective sacrifice fueled the momentum of the mass movement against oppression that culminated in the historic 1986 EDSA uprising,” he added.
Former president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law on Sept. 21, 1972. It was lifted on Jan. 17, 1981, but the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was continued.
The Marcos regime ended in February 1986 after he was ousted by a bloodless people power revolution.
Bishop Alminaza paid tribute to the survivors of the massacre who continued to serve the poor people of Negros Island.
One of the survivors was Bernardito “Tay Toto” Patigas who served as councilor in Escalante City before he was killed on April 22, 2019.
Bishop Alminaza said the country may “have gotten rid of the Marcos rule but the respect for human rights has yet to be fully realized.”
He said it is imperative for the Filipino people to know the historical roots of the conflict in the country, especially in conflict-stricken areas like Negros, “for us to move forward.”
“We must continue our pursuit for justice for the victims of past massacres and the recent victims of massacres due to agrarian disputes, social injustices, and inequality,” he said.
More than 90 social and land rights activists were killed in the province of Negros Occidental from July 2016 to August 2020.
Bishop Alminaza said serious attention must be given to the “efficient implementation of a genuine agrarian program and inclusive industrial development” if the government wants to address the centuries-old poverty and decades-long insurgency on the island.
The prelate urged the public to “be like a balm of compassion” for the victims of human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings.
He said the tolling of bells in the entire diocese is a prayer “to quicken the spirits of the faithful to stand with courage for peace-based on justice.”
He added that the ringing of church bells is also a call for the resumption of the stalled peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the communist rebels.
“We seek to remove the obstacles to building a just and lasting peace, addressing the roots of the armed conflict and sending forward peacebuilders, who will take seriously the wounds of our people,” he said.