Christian activists play key role in Philippine revolution

For members of the Christians for National Liberation, 1986 uprising was just the start of fight for social justice
Christian activists play key role in Philippine revolution
A priest carries an image of the Virgin Mary during the anniversary of the 1986 People Power revolution in Manila in 2016. (Photo by Angie de Silva) 
Only a few Filipinos now remember that evening of Feb. 22, 1986, when Cardinal Jaime Sin of Manila called on contemplative nuns to fast and pray until the battle was won, or else "fast until the end of your life."

The cardinal's call sparked what was later known as the "People Power revolution," a moment for the Philippine Catholic Church, which has been tagged as "ultra-conservative" by activists, to shine.

The seeds of the "radical and critical response" of church people was, however, sown some 16 years earlier when Filipino church people adopted the "active role of the church in social transformation" after the Second Vatican Council.

They got involved in rural development, land reform, community organizing, and the "indigenization" of faith and liturgy and later assumed a "collective identity" in an attempt to transform society.

On Feb. 17, 1972, Father Edicio Dela Torre, chaplain of the Federation of Free Farmers, led the formation of Christians for National Liberation (CNL), a group of church people who called themselves "prophetic minorities."

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"As we became radicalized from our initial reform orientation, we felt the need to have our own organization that would be both Christian and radical," said Dela Torre, who later left the priesthood to join the revolution.

He said the formation of CNL was a response to the realities experienced by church people in poor communities, adding that the "Christian militants" were driven by a "moral imperative to take part in the struggle for a just society."

The group became part of the growing dissent of people. When martial law was declared on Sept. 21, 1972, the Christian radicals were ready to go underground with the communists. 

"There were some who gave up their lives," recalled Dela Torre. Others remained above ground and provided support to those who were in the clandestine resistance. 

Church activists also played key roles in international solidarity movements and in the formation of the communist-led rebel group National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

Luis Jalandoni, a former priest who became an official of the NDFP, said Christian militants became instrumental in implementing the "revolutionary programs and task to serve the masses." They also consolidated Christian communities toward a "better understanding of society and the need for radical transformation."

By 1981, CNL became the largest organization under the umbrella group of revolutionary forces.

Dela Torre, however, said the organization "cannot and did not claim to play the leading role during the actual conjuncture of the uprising, but it would be unfair to dismiss its contribution as negligible."

Unfortunately, after the 1986 People Power uprising that ousted Marcos, the revolutionary movement, including the Christian activists, failed to adjust to the challenges of transition.

"Their influence relatively diminished," said Dela Torre, who was one of the longest-detained rebel leaders in the country.

A lay person called Sister Regina Alcantara, the nom de guerre of CNL's former deputy secretary-general in the Visayas region, also noted a "decline in pro-people and cause-oriented activities" of the church after 1986. 

"For many activists, there was hope in the new administration," she said.

The split in the communist-led revolutionary movement in the early 1990s further weakened CNL and activism in the church.

Chris, a former CNL member who only gave his Christian name, said the organization tried to remain steadfast by revisiting its identity as a "purely Christian" group, but it was not able to hold on its primary basis of unity.

There were those who reaffirmed the basic principles of the revolution and decided to form their own distinct assembly. They tried to rebuild CNL's objective of "social transformation."

"We believed that we have the duty to bring as many of the little ones in God's flock to the struggle for social transformation, better still, national liberation," said Alcantara. 

But the Christian identity was "overpowered by the identity of being a communist."

Felipe Patricio, former CNL chairman, said many Christian comrades were "remolded" into hardcore communist-revolutionaries. 

"They began to analyze society as Marxists not as Christians," he said, adding that the "Christian identity of many members diminished and communism took over."

Dela Torre said CNL's objective "to develop an appropriate strategy for church transformation as part of the over-all effort to achieve social transformation" slowly faded. 

In 1996, CNL saw the biggest decline in membership. The organization faded but did not die.

On Feb. 7, 2017, exactly 45 years after its founding, the underground Christian movement came out with a statement calling for peace and condemning the government's "all-out war" against communist insurgents.

"The people's yearning for a lasting peace had obviously been suppressed," said Renmin Malaya, CNL's current spokesman. He said the people are still "antagonized by social injustices and inequality."

For the few Christian militants who remain active in the revolution, the fasting and the praying never ended even after the 1986 uprising. For them it will continue until the Filipino people achieve "national liberation."

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