Philippine Protestant bishop freed after 10 months in jail

Judge says evidence presented by prosecution for possession of explosives charge not enough to convict prelate
Philippine Protestant bishop freed after 10 months in jail

In this file photo Protestant pastors join a protest rally in Manila to call for the release of Bishop Carlo Morales of the Philippine Independent Church who was arrested in the southern Philippines in May 2017. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

A Protestant bishop in the southern Philippines has been released after ten months in detention on charges of illegal possession of explosives.

Bishop Carlo Morales of the Philippine Independent Church was released last week after posting a 200,000-peso bail bond, or about US$ $3,840.

Judge Edmundo Pintac of the Ozamiz Regional Trial Court ordered the temporary liberty of the prelate, saying that evidence presented by the prosecution panel was "not strong enough to convict."

Prosecutors are now looking to provide the court with more evidence.

"He is fine and well and ready to resume work," said Bishop Rhee Timbang, the supreme bishop of the Protestant church, when asked about Bishop Morales.

Bishop Morales, pastor of Ozamiz City in the southern Philippines, was arrested with his wife Maria Teofifina Morales, driver Sadome Dalid, and Rommel Salinas on May 11, 2017.

Salinas was later identified as a consultant of the rebel National Democratic Front in peace negotiations with the government.

The Philippine Independent Church, an independent Christian denomination in the form of a national church, condemned the arrests as "malicious and ridiculous."

"The act of prosecuting a servant of God based on trumped-up charges is a big injustice imposed on a person and to the church that expressed solidarity with the struggle of the people," Bishop Timbang said.

Bishop Antonio Ablon, head of the church's Mindanao Bishops Conference, said the released prelate is "determined to continue with his ministry."

"Despite what happened to him, Morales is still the bishop of Ozamiz. He was not replaced," said Bishop Ablon, adding that the prelate did not show any hint of being physically drained.

"Judging from his body language, Bishop Carlo seems very eager to come back to work, but it will depend on the results of this talk with the supreme bishop," he said.

The Mindanao bishops' conference suggested that Bishop Morales take a leave of absence for a month "to reflect on his life after his time in prison."

In a statement, the Philippine Independent Church said the ordeal that Bishop Morales has been through and those of other political prisoners "must be continually condemned."

"We cannot close our eyes on the continuing incarceration of arrested social activists, intensified military operations in the countryside ... and the persecution of activists tagged as terrorists," read the statement signed by the church's supreme bishop.

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Bishop Timbang urged people "to stand firm in the struggle for justice and lasting peace" as he appealed to the government and the communist rebels to resume peace negotiations.

Last year, President Rodrigo Duterte stopped peace negotiations aimed at ending almost five decades of a communist insurgency, supposedly for continuing rebel attacks.

Jigger Jerusalem, Bong Sarmiento, and Divina Suson contributed to this report.

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