An ecumenical peace group in the Philippines called on the government and the communist rebels to return to the negotiating table and end the spate of violence in the country in recent weeks.
The Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform (PEPP) made the call a week after the death of a union worker and an athlete in a bomb explosion in Masbate City on June 6.
Nolven Absalon, chairperson of the Masbate Electric Cooperative Employees Union, and his cousin, 21-year-old football player Kieth Absalon, died after an improvised explosive device went off.
The Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), took “full responsibility” for the deaths and expressed willingness to indemnify the victims’ families.
“What happened in Masbate puts into fore the complexity of the armed conflict in our country and the many nuances to the different aspects of the issue,” read the PEPP statement.
“While the tragic incident is truly condemnable, it is also a timely reminder for us to pause and reflect,” said the Church leaders in the statement titled “We will serve the Lord and we choose peace.”
They said the incident “fully underscores the cost of the armed conflict in the country,” noting that it has already resulted in the “loss of thousands of lives, destruction of property and misery and hardship.”
The Church leaders pointed out that there are already mechanisms in place “that can hopefully provide justice,” citing peace agreements signed by the government and the rebels in the past.
“We hope that it is not disregarded by both parties even though the peace negotiations are suspended,” they said.
The Philippine government terminated peace negotiations with the rebels in 2018 in response to reported rebel attacks on government positions.
President Rodrigo Duterte later signed a proclamation declaring the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA as terrorist organizations.
The country’s Church leaders warned that “the armed conflict will continue to generate violence on the ground and will definitely result in more loss of lives from both sides and among civilians.”
“What is very fearsome is the call of some sectors to relentlessly pursue the NPA militarily in Masbate and throughout the country,” the PEPP statement read.
“Such an all-out military offensive can turn that island into a howling wilderness and create more pain and suffering throughout the country,” it added.
They said the “drive to annihilate” the communist rebels to resolve the armed conflict “can just result in more violations to human rights and international and humanitarian law.”
“We call on all Filipinos to not let the deaths of Nolven and Keith fan the flames of war but rather let their deaths implore us to further sow the seeds of peace that we badly need in our country,” PEPP added.
“We call on the government and [the communist rebels] to return to the negotiating table to address the roots of the armed conflict and respect all previous agreements,” said the Church leaders.
The most viable option to stop the violence on the ground and to resolve the conflict is through a negotiated peace settlement between the warring parties,” read the statement.
“We call on all peace advocates to work hand-in-hand in encouraging and accompanying both parties to once more engage in principled negotiations for a just and lasting peace.”
The statement was signed by Archbishop Emeritus Antonio J. Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, co-chairperson of PEPP, and Bishop Rex Reyes Jr. of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Philippines, also co-chairperson of the organization.
Also among the signatories are Dr. Aldrin Penamora, executive director of the Commission on Justice Peace and Reconciliation of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches; Bishop Reuel Norman Marigza, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines; Sr. Mary John D. Mananzan, OSB, Office of Women & Gender Commission of the AMRSP-Women; and Bishop Emeritus Deogracias S. Iniguez Jr., head of the secretariat of PEPP co-chairperson of the Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum.