Military denies intimidating and killing peace advocates branded as communist sympathizers
Ofelia Cantor (third from left) holds an umbrella during the evacuation of a tribal community in Mindanao due to military offensives against communist rebels in July 2018. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
A phone call woke up Ofelia Cantor in her native Philippines early one January morning to inform her that a rebel peace consultant had been shot and killed. She was shocked and a rush of adrenaline pulled her out of bed.
Cantor, a Methodist church worker, has been a peace advocate since the 1990s. Today, she heads the secretariat of the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform and serves as coordinator of the Ecumenical Bishops' Forum.
Working for peace is a delicate and complex matter because it involves so many actors, including foreign governments, she said.
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But Cantor was not complaining until the recent arrests of consultants acting for rebels in what have so far been failed attempts to conduct meaningful peace negotiations between communists and the government.
Military offensives intensified, claiming dozens of lives and causing disruption, particularly to civilian communities in the hinterlands.
Cantor said the worst thing the government could do was fail to seek an end to the conflict.
"People have sacrificed their lives to pursue peace," she said, adding that opportunities were lost with the targeting of people working for an end to hostilities.
So, Cantor, as well as defending victims of the conflict, has to try to protect peace advocates. She and her organization have voiced alarm over the recent so-called red-tagging of activists, including priests and bishops.
One of those accused of being a supporter of the communists is Bishop Felixberto Calang of the Philippine Independent Church.
"We became the subject of attacks because we continue to side with the truth," said the Protestant prelate, who maintained that he and others represent the most oppressed in Philippine society.
The military establishment has denied killing alleged communist sympathizers, adding that it did not engage in the sort of "cheap propaganda" being directed against the security forces.
Also accused of supporting the rebels was Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, a group of religious priests and nuns who work with farmers and tribal people.
"We take it seriously,” said Good Shepherd nun Lanita Belardo, coordinator of the organization. "These attacks put the lives of our missionaries in danger."
Various church programs on the restive southern island of Mindanao were suspended and those administering them have been called in for consultations in order to shield them from violence, Belardo said.
The National Council of Churches in the Philippines, which brings together the nation's various Protestant churches, urged the public to back peace efforts.
Minnie Anne Mata-Calub, general secretary of the council, said people working to secure a safe and peaceful future for the next generation should be given assistance.
Despite the threats, Cantor said she would continue with her mission, going back to the grassroots every time she felt afraid and discouraged.
That includes visiting displaced tribal children from Mindanao who sought sanctuary in a religious institution in Manila.
Cantor said being with the children provided her with the motivation, passion and strength to continue to promote a principled dialogue.
"One life in peril is enough reason to pursue peace," said Cantor, adding that nobody deserves to live in a constant state of fear and uncertainty.
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