Philippine clergy weary of soldiers' church visits

Military 'courtesy calls' are supposedly part of a govt engagement program that church people say is a harassment tactic
Philippine clergy weary of soldiers' church visits

Church activists in the Philippines are at the forefront of protests against what they claim are abusive government policies, resulting in harassment by state agents. (Photo by Jire Carreon) 

Church visits are popular among Filipinos especially during the Lenten season when devotees go from one church to another to pray and pay their respects to its patron saint.

These days, however, members of the clergy in the northern part of the country, are complaining about “church visits” being paid by soldiers.

Father Ferdinand Lacanaria of the Philippine Independent Church (PIC) says the visits are frequent and have become annoying.

He said the soldiers first bring food, later they ask about his whereabouts, and much later ask him to become a “bridge” with local human rights groups.

Father Lacanaria said the visits are only paid to churches and convents of religious groups that are vocal in their human rights advocacy.

Except for the part where they are supposed to "pray and pay respect," the soldiers call their church visits “courtesy calls,” which are supposedly part of the military's “community engagement program” with the civilian community.

The program is under the military’s "Joint Campaign Plan Contentment" plan, the blueprint of the government's anti-insurgency campaign that mandates government agencies work closely with the private sector in combating the influence of communist rebels.

 Ecumenical church leaders protest what they described is harassment by the Philippine government of members of the clergy who work for human rights, especially in the provinces. (Photo by Jire Carreon) 



Most of those visited by the soldiers are to the clergy of the PIC, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), and the United Methodist Church.

"They insist on seeing me regularly at home but I said if they want to engage with the Church then they should visit me in my office or my church," said Methodist pastor Joel Bengbeng.

"I think they are after specific churches," said Bengbeng, one of several pastors in the region who have been active in campaigns against alleged military incursion into tribal communities.

The UCCP in northern Luzon region expressed alarm about the visits in a recent statement. 

They said the incidents point to "a pattern that includes surveillance, harassment, and public ostracism by the state’s military and police agencies."

The Protestant church group said the visits have caused "a lot of apprehension and spiritual distress" among their members and workers.

They, however, clarified that military and police personnel "are always welcome in our churches and for our congregational worship."

"But they need to remove their sandals and drop off their martial cloaks and national security agenda whenever they approach our houses of worship," read the statement.

PIC Bishop, Jed Manzano, said the visits could be "recognition" of the Church's "relevance to society."

He said, however, that the visits have become a "cause for concern" because their churches, especially in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, have become targets of "vilification" by the military.

The bishop said that while soldiers are welcome to visit places of worship, churches "must be spared from all military operations, be it covert or overt."

"The visits may seem like a simple social call, but [the churches] are targeted for regular visitations for a reason," said Mary Gabayan of the Ilocos Human Rights Alliance.

She said the occasional visits are "subtle actions intended to evoke discomfort and fear, and to dissuade the individuals they visit from continuing their advocacy."

Gabayan noted that Protestant churches and their members in the area are being accused by the government of harboring and working with communist rebels.

"Their members have experienced and continue to receive threats and harassment, with some becoming victims of political killings," said Gabayan.

She cited the case of Pastor Francisco Bunoan of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines who was accused by the military of being a member of the communist New People's Army.

"He was arrested on trumped-up charges twice and the court dismissed both cases. Now he is again facing murder and attempted murder charges filed by the military," she said.

Gabayan said several church workers have also been killed in the past for their human rights advocacy.

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