Lay missionaries speak with displaced tribal people at a temporary shelter on the outskirts of Cagayan de Oro City on the Philippine island of Mindanao in August 2018. (Photo by Mark Saludes/ucanews.com)
A starving child crawling to an empty pot in the middle of a temporary shelter while its mother looks on helplessly is a scene that Muy (not his real name) constantly encounters in his work.
Scenes like this prompted the young nurse from the northern part of the country to work as a lay missionary in conflict areas in the southern Philippines.
"It was my desire to serve God and the Church since I was young," he told ucanews.com. He asked that his name not be revealed because he has received threats to his personal safety in recent weeks.
The young man's visits to the villages where the missionaries' work helped him understand the value of working for the poor.
"If we don't tend to those who have less in life, or accompany those who are unheard, then we are not doing what Christ wants us to do," he said.
On several occasions, Muy joined displaced tribal people in makeshift tents, sleeping on the same cold concrete floor and eating the same threadbare rations.
Mission in peril
Muy is well aware of the dangers he could encounter in his work, especially as most of the places his group visits are so-called conflict areas.
He accepts that one day he may find himself caught in the middle of the fighting, as has been the case with many of the tribal people he has been spending time with.
"But it's a different story if you are accused of siding with one of the two opposing forces," he said.
On Feb. 11, Muy received a message from an unknown phone number telling him "not to meddle" in the conflict. He "should've not gone to Mindanao," read the message.
"If you want to join the media, just don't do it with the [New Peoples' Army]," added the message, referring to the communist guerrillas who have been fighting the government.
Members of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines join a demonstration in Manila demanding greater respect for human rights in this July 2017 file photo. (Photo by Mark Saludes/ucanews.com)
Sister Emma Cupin, regional coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, said many of the organization's staff have become targets of "harassment and intimidation."
The nun said the Church's work with farmers and tribal people "in promoting human rights and the fulfillment of human dignity" has angered some sectors of society.
Sister Cupin, who belongs to the Missionary Sisters of Mary congregation, said they would continue to serve the poor "despite repeated attacks by those threatened by the voices of the oppressed."
In recent months, the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines has been tagged as a front organization for the communist rebels, along with several other church groups.
In February, leaflets were distributed in the southern city of Cagayan de Oro tagging 19 individuals as "terrorist members of the New People's Army and the Communist Party of the Philippines."
One of those who made the list was Bishop Felixberto Calang of the Philippine Independent Church.
He accused the military establishment of "perpetuating and sustaining the harassment and intimidation to hinder the work of church workers and rights advocates for the oppressed."
The military has denied the allegations, saying it "does not engage in cheap propaganda."
Lt. Col. Ezra Balagtey of the army's Eastern Mindanao Command said some groups "aim to cast the Philippine army in the bad light" and "create chaos."
Alarm bells ringing
Sister Elenita Belardo, national coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, described the "red tagging" as "alarming."
"It can be used as a justification to go after priests, sisters, and lay workers who live out their Christian commitment among the rural poor," said the nun.
She said there seems to be a grand plan to vilify her organization.
On Feb. 21, the Philippines' National Security Council submitted documents to the United Nations complaining of alleged atrocities committed by communist guerrillas.
The complaint mentioned several groups that are supposedly "front organizations" of the communists, including human rights group Karapatan, independent think-tank Ibon Foundation, and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines.
On March 13, Manila made a formal request to the European Union and the Belgian government to cut funding for alleged communist front groups.
The government claimed the missionaries "radicalize children" in hinterland communities.
The missionaries have filed a counter-complaint with the Commission on Human Rights.
"These accusations sadden and anger us," said Sister Belardo.
"As rural missionaries, we want to help in whatever way we can as a result of our faith, and yet we are being harassed, slandered and vilified continually," she said.
"God called us for this mission. When we responded to His call, we knew our mission would be full of challenges, dangerous even," said the nun, adding they would "rise to the challenge and be fruitful as we continue our missionary work."
For his part, Muy remains optimistic and sees the challenges as "part of the mission to build a society free from injustice and inequality."