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More action required by church to truly help indigenous people

Catholic clergy in the Philippines need to put into action their avowed commitments to serve the poorest of the poor

More action required by church to truly help indigenous people

Indigenous people from various parts of the Philippines arrive in the capital Manila on Oct. 13 for part of the month-long "journey of national minorities for self-determination and just peace." (Photo by Angie de Silva)

About a thousand indigenous people — men, women, and children — from the southern Philippines region of Mindanao walked for several days to the nation's capital early October last year to raise awareness of what they continue to experience at the hands of the national government.

Carrying torches to light the way and banners to amplify their message, the indigenous people reached Manila a few days before world leaders met there for 2015's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

They set up camp inside a university campus where, students, activists, ordinary folk from nearby gated communities, leaders of various church and civil society groups, supplied them with sacks of food, clothing, and even toys for the children.

There seemed to be no end to the donations. The indigenous people even had to invite people from nearby communities to share meals. It was a big party. Even Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila came to visit.

The indigenous people stayed for almost a month in the capital. They appeared on several television shows, were interviewed on radio, landed on the front pages of national dailies, and their stories were carried by international wire agencies.

They became overnight celebrities who had pricked the conscience of the country.

The sad reality of tribal communities in the Philippines is not only limited to people in the southern part of the country.

Last week, some 6,000 tribal people from all over the country came marching to the capital on Oct. 13 in what they described as a "journey of national minorities for self-determination and just peace."

Wearing their traditional clothes and playing bamboo instruments, they emphasized their desire for independence.

They called on the new administration of President Rodrigo Duterte to charter a course for an independent foreign policy and back it up with concrete actions, adding that tribal communities have also been victimized by local and foreign development projects that ultimately displaced their communities.

Philippine indigenous people have suffered a lot. Their leaders have been killed and their schools have been closed. They have received endless threats from government soldiers who are quick to accuse people living in hinterland communities of being supporters of communist rebels.

Walking along with the tribal people were Catholic and Protestant church leaders who have been in the forefront in calling for an end to attacks on indigenous communities.

Church leaders said it is their "utmost obligation to hear the cry for help and stand with the poor."

The Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, a Catholic organization of missionaries working in rural communities, said the call for an end to attacks on tribal communities is "morally just" and a "concretization of the teachings of Christ."

The Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines issued a statement condemning what the group described as the "massive forced displacement and, even worse, massacres, killings, harassment and rampages of terror in tribal lands."

It is "tantamount to tolerating cultural destruction or effecting the obliteration, even genocide, of the lumad people," said the religious leaders.

In a period of five years from 2010 at least 53 lumads, as the tribal people of Mindanao are called, had been killed.

Up to 2015, a total of 144 indigenous people, environmental defenders and human rights activists around the country have become victims of extrajudicial killings.

Thousands of others were displaced due to government military operations in hinterland tribal communities in the Philippines.

As the Catholic Church in the Philippines observe the "Indigenous Peoples Sunday" this month, the challenge is for church leaders to put into action what they have declared almost 30 years ago.

In 1978, the country's Catholic bishops began celebrating "Tribal Peoples Sunday" every second week of October to honor the contribution of tribal people to society.

The celebration aims to call people's attention to the plight of the more than a hundred indigenous tribes in the Philippines that are often exploited and discriminated against in society.

In declaring "Tribal Peoples Sunday," the country's Catholic bishops said part of the mission of the church is expressing Gospel values in terms that are understandable and respectful of the culture of tribal people.

Years have passed since that first church observance, but most parishes still have to go beyond the homilies and commentaries, and solidarity dinners and visits to tribal communities.

Although the Philippine Catholic Church as an institution has maintained its militant stand on behalf of indigenous peoples, much is still expected from bishops, priests, and the religious in putting into action their avowed commitment to serve the poorest of the poor.

Much has to be done to support the indigenous people's struggle for the fullness of life, which Redemptorist missionary to Mindanao Karl Gaspar said, will only come with "the full blossoming of the people's struggle for self-determination."

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