A marching band passes by the Catholic church in of the town of Balangiga during the observance of the Feast of San Lorenzo de Martir on Aug. 9. (Photo by Christopher C. Zamora)
Filipinos have welcomed an announcement by the United States that it will soon return church bells seized by American troops as trophies during the Philippine-American War more than a century ago.
In a statement on Aug. 11, the U.S. embassy in Manila said Congress has already been informed about plans to return the "Bells of Balangiga" to the Philippines.
American soldiers took the church bells from the town of Balangiga in the central Philippines following the massacre of its residents in response to the death of 48 U.S. troops at the hands of rebels in 1901.
"We've received assurances that the bells will be returned to the Catholic Church and treated with the respect and honor they deserve," U.S. embassy spokeswoman Trude Raizen said.
"We are aware that the bells of Balangiga have deep significance for a number of people, both in the United States and in the Philippines," she added.
The news came as the town of Balangiga celebrated the feast day of its patron saint, San Lorenzo de Martir, on Aug. 10.
The U.S. did not give a specific date as to when the bells would be sent back.
"If the news is true, then that would be great for us," said Balangiga town mayor Randy Graza, adding that it would be a cause for celebration.
President Rodrigo Duterte highlighted the demand for the return of the Balangiga Bells during his State of the Nation Address last year.
"Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage," said the president.
Catholic bishops have appealed for their return, saying they were "religious artifacts with considerable significance to Catholic tradition."
The prelates said the bells were used to call people to prayer and worship and "as such they were inappropriate trophies of war."
Balangiga church’s belfry remains empty as a reminder of the bells’ loss.
The taking of the bells and the American sacking of Samar came after Filipino freedom fighters ambushed and killed at least 40 American soldiers sitting down to breakfast.
They were part of a 75-man American garrison stationed in town. It is said the bells were used to signal the attack.
Rebels disguised as women had smuggled weapons in small coffins into the church to attack the Americans.
At least 28 Filipinos were also killed in what historians say was the "single worst defeat" of American forces during the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War.
In reprisal, the Americans rounded up and killed some 5,000 Balangiga villagers. All male residents over 10 years old were killed. The incident became known as the Balangiga Massacre.
The church bells were taken to the United States and never returned despite several petitions by the Catholic Church and the Philippine government.
The attack and the subsequent reprisal remains one of the longest running and most contentious issues between the Philippines and the United States.
Two of the bells are at F.E. Warren Air Force Base outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, while the third is kept by the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment in South Korea.