A group of tribal children have appealed to Pope Francis to help them win justice for a murdered Italian priest who was killed inside his parish compound in the southern Philippines more than three years ago.
They say the slow pace of the investigation into the killing of Father Fausto "Pops" Tentorio might forever deprive them of the justice for which they are searching.
“We hope that our message will reach Pope Francis during his visit here in the Philippines. Please help us seek immediate justice for the death of our beloved Father Pops” said Sandy Agat, a young student from the Bagobo tribe in North Cotabato province in Mindanao.
She expressed hope the papal visit this week would help thrust the case back into the spotlight, saying the priest was very much like the current pope.
Agat says she was only able to get a proper education because of a school built by Tentorio.
Tentorio, who belonged to the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, was shot dead by a gunman inside his parish compound in Arakan town, North Cotabato, in October 2011.
Witnesses and Tentorio's parishioners have accused the Bagani — a paramilitary group — and the country’s military of being behind the murder.
Rights activists say Father Tentorio's outspoken views against human rights violations, large-scale mining and logging, and his steadfast support for indigenous people and farmers were the motives behind his killing.
“We felt our world stopped the moment Father Pops’ heart stopped beating. They took him away from us,” Agat said.
Tentorio helped build schools and financially assisted children from indigenous groups so they could go to high school and college, she said.
The murdered priest was like no other we knew and embraced the life of indigenous people by living with them in their communities and by learning their language and culture, she added.
In 2012, President Benigno Aquino ordered the creation of a Special Investigating Team for Unsolved Cases to look into cases of extrajudicial killings in the country.
Fellow Italian priest Father Peter Geremia commented recently that the special task force has yielded no significant progress since its creation and has only created more frustration for the families of the victims.
Human rights groups say that although two brothers, Jimmy and Robert Ato, both members of the Bagani, have been arrested, the masterminds behind the priest’s killing are still free.
Military officials deny any involvement in the killing.
The military also denies funding or training tribal paramilitary units in the North Cotabato area.