For less than a minute, it was the shortest confession she ever made and the longest appeal she did before the image of the Black Nazarene of Manila.
“It was the right time to talk to Jesus and to tell the truth,” said Jas Salem, mindful of the growing number of people inside the church.
She approached the altar from the sacristy, stood in front of the image of Christ carrying his cross, and whispered: “She has done nothing wrong.”
When the image of the Black Nazarene visited the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Manila’s Baclaran district, Jas prayed not for herself but for he sister Icy.
The 29-year-old church worker is the sister of Lady Ann “Icy” Salem, the 36-year-old journalist who was arrested for alleged illegal possession of firearms and explosives on December 10.
“God knows that the accusations against my sister are not true,” said Jas. “Her only crime, if it is a crime, is truth telling,” she said.
It was past 10 o’clock in the morning on International Human Rights Day. Jas was at work when she received a call from a friend who broke the news about the arrest of her sister.
“The first information that came to me was that my sister was missing,” Jas told LiCAS.news.
Jas left her work station and rushed to the church’s altar to pray.
“I was afraid of what might happen,” she said. “I have heard too many stories of people being abducted and going missing or ending up dead after being taken by the police or the military,” she said.
Earlier that day, Icy was arrested by the police in one of four separate dawn raids.
Jas went to the police headquarters in Manila to search for her sister. She was in the parking area of the police camp when she heard a woman shouting.
“We saw my sister inside the vehicle next to our car. She was telling us that she was taken by the police,” recalled Jas who said that seeing her sister alive was already “an answered prayer.”
But minutes before Icy’s lawyers arrived, the police car where she was held drove away.
Jas and her companions followed the car for more than three hours as it circled the city until it reached another police camp in the outskirts of the capital.
Crackdown on activists
On the same day, state security forces arrested and detained seven activists, including Icy in what human rights groups dubbed as a “crackdown on activists and human rights defenders.”
Icy and her media entity, Manila Today, have been subjected to “red-tagging” before her arrest in December.
The government has tagged Manila Today, along with other alternative media outfits under the Altermidya Network, of being an “aboveground” organization of communist rebels.
About a year before Icy’s arrest, a community journalist in the central Philippines was also arrested and charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
Frenchie Mae Cumpio, executive director of Eastern Vista and radio anchor of “Lingganay han Kamatuoran,” was nabbed in a dawn raid in Tacloban City on Feb. 7, 2020.
Altermidya Network said the arrests of Icy and Frenchie Mae were part of a “systematic plan to suppress” and “force into silence” independent journalists.
The statement said that both are community journalists “with a stellar record of reporting issues of the marginalized and underrepresented.”
Altermidya said the allegation that the network is a member of the communist underground movement is “so baseless and unfounded.”
The group said the “end goal” of the attacks on community journalists, and even big media networks, “is to conceal from the public the corrupt acts, incompetence, and widespread violations against people’s rights and welfare.”
Clinging on to faith
Jas, a devotee of the Our Mother of Perpetual Help and the Black Nazarene since she was in high school, said she does not often ask for anything from God but only expresses her gratitude when she prays.
“But this time, I am asking for help,” she said. “I am praying for the intercession of Our Mother and the guidance of Jesus in the midst of these challenges that our family has to face,” she said.
Jas said her prayers are not just for her sister “but for all those who have been wrongly accused because they choose to speak truth to power.”
Redemptorist priest Jose dela Cruz said the “powerless and the least” in society are usually the ones who reach out to the Virgin Mary and to the suffering image of Jesus Christ.
“When the duty-bearers and the people in power, who are supposed to listen, do not hear the pleas of the ordinary people, there is no one left to cling on to but God,” said the priest.
He said God already knows what Jas was going to pray for even before she made it to the altar.
“And God knows whether the prayer is sincere, truthful, and just,” said Father Dela Cruz, adding that “prayers for the truth to come out are the most answered prayers.”
The priest said the truth behind the “questionable arrest and charges” against Icy “will soon come out because it is very hard to stand on and for fabricated lies.”
Jas’ prayer for the truth to come out “is a solemn cry for justice and dignity,” he said.
As the predominantly Catholic Philippines venerate the image of the Black Nazarene on January 9, Jas prayed on bended knees “for justice” for her sister and “for truth” to come out.