Tribal leaders in the southern region of Mindanao conferred upon Pope Francis on Friday the title "Apo Edsila" or "Elder Light" in a "gathering of the poor" that was also attended by Catholic nuns.
"We are bestowing on him the title because he is worthy of high esteem with his love for us, indigenous peoples, and for his respect for the values and beliefs that we have held sacred since time immemorial," said Dulphing Ogan, leader of Kalumaran, and indigenous peoples organization in the southern Philippines.
Pope Francis, who is on a five-day pastoral visit to the country, called on government leaders to respect the "inalienable rights of all, including the indigenous peoples and religious minorities" in Mindanao.
The pontiff lauded the Filipino people's "rich cultural and religious heritage". He said he is confident that efforts to promote peace in Mindanao will prove fruitful.
The tribal title was conferred upon Pope Francis by leaders of the Bagobo, Manobo and Higaonon tribes in Mindanao during a ritual called "panubadtubad", which is usually held at the beginning and end of journeys.
Ogan, meanwhile, said the pope's anticipated encyclical on climate change "is a breath of fresh air for indigenous peoples" because it would likely bring the issue of ancestral domains and the violation of the rights of tribal people out into the open.
The pontiff's earlier "indictment of the pitfalls of capitalism" is an affirmation of indigenous values of collectivism and stewardship of the earth, said the tribal leader.
"We look up to the pope to usher in ‘newness’ and transformation in this global system that perpetuates greed, exploitation, and oppression," said Ogan.
During the ritual on Friday, chicken blood was offered to Magbabaya, the tribal god of Mindanao's tribes, to signify their solidarity with the pope.
Incense was also used to repel “bad spirits that may bring harm to the people and the pope".
Offerings during the ceremony included betel nut, lime and a seashell "as symbols of the heart and compassion of the [tribes in Mindanao] in defending and protecting their rights… the same compassion to the poor that the pope has manifested."
Large-scale mining and logging operations, and the expansion of plantations in Mindanao have caused the displacement of thousands of indigenous peoples from their ancestral land.
Ogan said opposition from the tribes was met with persecution, harassments, militarization and summary executions.
Data from the National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples showed that 50 indigenous peoples have been killed since 2010, while tribes in Mindanao experienced 26 forced evacuations due to military operations.
Piya Macliing Malayao, spokeswoman of the alliance, said there seems to have been no letup in impunity and human rights abuses against tribal communities.
Malayao blames the government's counterinsurgency program that "tolerates and even encourages the formation of paramilitary groups in resource-laden Mindanao".
She said Mindanao "crawls with paramilitary groups and government mercenaries" hired by mining companies and businesses.