Fighting and dying for freedom

Rights campaigners in the Philippines and around the world have sought to protect human dignity
Fighting and dying for freedom

Nuns lead a procession in Manila on June 22 to draw attention to the killings of Catholic priests in the Philippines in the past six months. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

What is independence but freedom from the domination and control of others?

Freedom is firstly an inner, non-material spiritual value. The desire for it is natural and, when achieved, a joyful experience.

Freedom to practice our religious beliefs with dignity and without bondage, poverty or fear — and freedom of expression — are the greatest of human values and universal rights.

Working for freedom and independence from all kinds of oppression — whether it be discrimination, racism, sex slavery and exploitation, land grabbing or unjust imprisonment — should be spiritually motivated, not driven by political ambitions.

It is a commitment to stand up for moral and Gospel values.

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The great Mahatma Gandhi, a man of deep spirituality and conviction, protested against British oppression of India's people.

He was a rights campaigner, not a politician, yet his demand for freedom was wrongly branded as subversion by British authorities. As a result, he was vilified and jailed. But he won independence and was named the Father of the Nation

In the Philippines, Filipino Catholic priests Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora were garroted to death in Manila's Bagumbayan (now called Luneta Park) by Spanish authorities after a sham trial.

The priests were falsely accused of political treachery arising from an 1872 mutiny that gave rise to a rising tide of nationalism In fact, they were human rights activists in a struggle against Spanish-born clerics, but accusations of political crimes were a handy way to get rid of critics.

In Negros province in the Western Visayas region of the central Philippines in the 1980s, Catholic missionary priests Brian Gore from Australia and Niall O'Brian from Ireland, Filipino priest Vicente Dangan and six lay workers were jailed by the Marcos regime on false charges related to the death of a mayor.

Communist rebels admitted that they had carried out the killing, but the priests and church workers were unjustly blamed to silence them from speaking out against social injustice. After many months, they were eventually freed.

Nowadays, assassins are continuing to kill advocates of freedom and independence, human rights activists, media practitioners and priests as well as pastors.

On the southern island of Mindanao, for more than 32 years, Father Fausto Tentorio was dedicated to helping poor tribal people in their struggle against mining interests that were grabbing their land and destroying their environment.

He was murdered. Fellow Mindanao missionaries Father Tullio Favali and Father Salvatore Carzedda were also murdered. They gave their lives for the freedom of the oppressed people. Their work for the poor was not political; it was humanitarian.

Father Marcelito Paez, 72, who dedicated his life to human rights and justice for prisoners, was shot and killed on Dec. 4 last year in the town of Jaen, 100 kilometers north of Manila, immediately after he secured the release from jail of a political prisoner.

Father Mark Anthony Yuaga Ventura, a Catholic priest, was shot and killed after saying Mass in the northern Philippine town of Gattaran on April 29 this year. He was known to be active in supporting the struggle of indigenous peoples for their rights against land grabbers. Leading political authorities vilified his life of service with baseless sordid allegations.

On June 10, Father Richmond Villaflor Nilo was gunned down inside the Nuestra Senora dela Nieve chapel in Zaragoza town, 125 kilometers from Manila. Police said the priest was shot while he was putting on his liturgical vestments to start the celebration of Mass.

Australian nun Patricia Fox is still facing the prospect of deportation for taking a stand on the rights of indigenous and other poor people. Her courageous spiritual commitment was branded as political interference. Attempted deportation is the only thanks the government is giving her after 27 years of dedicated work.

Archbishop Oscar Romero was appointed archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, in February 1977. From being a very conservative bishop, he experienced oppression when his best friend, a priest and human rights advocate, was brutally murdered by the government's secret police.

From then on, the archbishop changed and campaigned for human rights and justice for the poor through radio, articles and sermons. He defended political prisoners facing execution. And he spoke out against violence and torture by the dictatorial regime in San Salvador. Many other bishops in El Salvador said he was too political and claimed that he was supporting communists.

On many occasions, Romero said he was following the teachings of Jesus Christ, who was executed for standing with the poor and criticizing unjust authorities. Then on March 24, 1980, he was assassinated while he celebrated Mass.

When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis, he recognized the heroic commitment of Oscar Romero and beatified him in May 2015. Then, in March this year, Pope Francis announced that Archbishop Romero would be made a saint on Oct. 14.

The international synod of bishops in 1971 declared: "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation."

Working for orphans and other children's rights, widows, the poor and wretched of the earth trampled by the rich and powerful, as well as speaking the truth to defend others who are abused and exploited, is the mission of Jesus of Nazareth.

This is not political. It is showing mercy, compassion, understanding and giving life and freedom to Filipinos and others.

Irish Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in the Philippines in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sexual abuse.

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