A religious procession passes by the Arch of the Centuries at the University of Santo Tomas, the Philippines' oldest institution of learning. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
Catholic schools and religious congregations in the Philippines have signed an agreement to support tribal groups, especially those in Mindanao, who they say have been under attack by the authorities.
The Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, the country's oldest Catholic educational institution, has signed up to champion the cause of non-Muslim tribes in Mindanao — commonly called the Lumad.
The Dominican-run university has joined the Benedictine-nun run Saint Scholastica's College in Manila and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines in pledging support for the tribes.
The agreement, also signed by the Philippine Independent Church, states that the signatories will provide material support for alternative tribal schools in the mountains.
Also included in the deal is the promise to help in the curriculum management of the schools and in training of volunteer teachers.
Dominican friar Quirico Pedregosa Jr., rector of the university's Central Seminary, said religious congregations will also take care of displaced tribes, especially during military operations.
The priest stressed the need among church and religious groups for coordination during times of crisis for the tribes.
About 2,000 students of tribal schools in Mindanao have stopped going to schools during continuous military operations against communist rebels in hinterland villages.
According to advocacy group Save our Schools, there were 284 attacks on tribal schools that were accused of helping rebels in the past two years.
The group reported that soldiers shut at least 50 schools and about 120 teachers were accused of being rebels sympathizers.
Father Pedragosa called on Catholics to take time to hear the stories of tribal people who went to Manila recently to share the situation in their communities.
"They came to the capital because it was the only way to get their voices heard," said the Dominican priest.
"Here at the center, we must step up our acts of solidarity. We must make available physical facilities and open our houses for their activities," he said.
"Our challenge is to seize every opportunity within our reach to protect the rights of all peoples, including workers, farmers, teachers and the urban poor," said Father Pedragosa.