The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) raised concerns about violations against the “rights to freedom of expression” for churches and church workers during a dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur.
In a meeting with Ms. Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Council decried state-sponsored violations against the “freedom of religion and the ministry and practice thereof”.
Bishop Melzar Labuntog, the General Secretary of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and NCCP chairperson, lamented the “unjust imprisonment” of church people.
Two UCCP Pastors, Nathaniel Vallente and Jimmy Teves, who are both peasant advocates, are now in jail in the central Philippines while Aldeem Yañez, an ecumenical leader of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente and an indigenous people rights advocate, is incarcerated in Mindanao.
The Protestant prelate also denounced the “series of fabricated charges,” under the Anti-Terrorism Law (ATL), filed against United Methodist Church Pastor Glofie Baluntong, Rev. Edwin Egar, UCCP in the Southern Tagalog region, and Petti Enriquez of NCCP.
“These charges not only harm those targeted but also disrupt their communities, displace them from their homes, and hinder their ability to practice their faith and fulfill their ministries in their respective churches and areas of ministry,” the Council said in a statement.
Bishop Labuntog also criticized the “weaponization” of the Anti-Terrorism Financing Act against church institutions and church workers. The prelate noted that in Davao City, the UCCP Haran Center and the UCCP Fatima were charged with violations of the said law.
These institutions are providing sanctuary and scholarship programs for Indigenous Peoples who were displaced due to armed conflict and land rights issues.
“The right to freedom of expression is essential for church people to practice their Christian religious beliefs through various ministries. These freedoms are fundamental to the Bill of Rights of the Philippine Constitution and must be actively upheld,” said Bishop Labuntong.
Mervin Toquero, the NCCP Program Secretary for Faith Witness and Service and co-convenor of the Philippine UPR Watch, highlighted a concerning trend where church workers, particularly those engaged in the social action ministry and dedicated to promoting peace, are being unjustly labeled as terrorists.
The church leaders urged Khan “to not only call for the repeal of the ATL but also to support” the call for the resumption of peace talks between the Philippine government and the communist rebels.