Sister Noemi Delaga speaks at a press conference on Friday in Tacloban (Photo by Vincent Go)
Officers from the Philippine National Police on Thursday detained a delegation of nuns from Mindanao en route to San Jose district in Tacloban, accusing them of being covert members of a militant organization.
The nuns from the Sisters Association of Mindanao (SAMIN) were visiting Tanauan, just outside Palo in Leyte province, to deliver relief aid before attending a vigil and welcoming ceremony for Pope Francis in San Jose, one of the districts hardest hit by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013.
“We were stopped and held up for an hour while police peppered us with questions and accusations,” Sr Noemi Degala, executive secretary of SAMIN, said in a press statement.
Among the accusations, the statement added, was that the sisters were members of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Sr Evangelina Labanda, one of the nuns detained and questioned, said the Archdiocese of Palo was well briefed on the group’s humanitarian activities in Leyte province, and specifically in Tacloban.
“Even before our coming, the archdiocese had already acknowledged the legitimacy of our organization,” she said at a press conference at the Kawaksi Retreat Center in San Jose district on Friday.
She added that the group had official identification papers and car passes required for travel in Tacloban during the papal visit.
Attempts to reach police officials in Tanauwan for comment on Friday were unsuccessful.
Hermenio Coloma Jr, secretary at the Presidential Communications Operations Office, told ucanews.com that he “will refer the report to the Philippines National Police for comment”.
“SAMIN is very much active … and recognized by the priests, by the authorities of the Church,” Sr Degala said.
“We have been very active with Church issues. We have been very active with social issues, and where the Church should stand on them,” she added.
Pope Francis is expected to arrive in Tacloban on Saturday morning, where he will celebrate Mass at the airport before traveling to nearby Palo.
There, he will have lunch with 30 representatives of Haiyan survivors before blessing the Pope Francis Center for the Poor and meeting a group of priests, nuns, seminarians and families of Haiyan survivors at Palo cathedral.
Security ahead of the visit has been tight. About 35,000 PNP officers and 12,500 military personnel have been added to the existing police force in Tacloban to provide security for the pope’s visit.
Residents living in multi-storey structures along the pope’s processional route between the airport and Palo have been advised not to enter the upper floors during the procession.
Cesar Ronda lives in a two-storey house on San Jose Airport Road, along which the papal procession will pass, and says that police have warned him about using his balcony.
To accommodate family members who have flown in from the United States to see the pope, he has constructed a three-foot stage in his front yard.
“[Security] is very strict. We are constructing the platform because we cannot use our terrace, the balcony of our own house,” he said on Thursday.
Sr Degala described the security restrictions in Tacloban as “overburdening” but said the treatment of the SAMIN sisters went well beyond what was acceptable.
“The militarized security conditions have been widely reported in the media, but this brazen harassment of religious sisters takes the cake,” Sr Degala said.
“We are not armed communist revolutionaries, and we are most certainly not terrorists.”
Additional reporting by Ronald O. Reyes