Philippine Protestants tell soldiers to stop church visits

Church leaders say army turning up unannounced is causing 'apprehension and spiritual distress'
Philippine Protestants tell soldiers to stop church visits

Protestant leaders in the northern Philippines attend a dialogue with the army to clarify reported unannounced visits by soldiers to churches. (Photo by Monica Cutin)

Protestant pastors in the northern Philippines have told the military to stop visiting their churches because it has caused "fear and distress" among churchgoers.

The appeal was made in a recent dialogue following reports that soldiers have been specifically visiting religious leaders vocal in their human rights advocacy.

Reverend Jun Paplonot of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) said the sudden interest of soldiers in church activities and programs has made churchgoers anxious.

He said he is aware of the "true intentions" of the visits because church activities they were interested in covered "justice, peace, the integrity of creation, and ecumenism."

In recent months, Protestant churches and their members who are active in social justice advocacies have been accused by the government of harboring and working with communist rebels.

Last month, the UCCP in the northern Philippines released a statement expressing alarm over unannounced visits of soldiers in churches and convents.

It said the visits have caused "a lot of apprehension and spiritual distress" among its members and workers.

Father Ferdinand Lacanaria of the Philippine Independent Church (PIC) expressed disappointment with the military during the dialogue for "not being truthful" about their intentions.

"I opened the church to you without reservation but all the while you were there to monitor my activities and organizational affiliations," he said.

He told the soldiers to stop going to his church, noting that even his altar boy has expressed fear after a soldier asked for his mobile phone number.

Father Lacanaria said he became suspicious about the visits when the soldiers started asking about the activities and plans of the group Ilocos Human Rights Alliance.

Lt. Col. Charles Castillo, commander of the Philippine army's 81st Infantry Battalion said the visits were part of the military's "peace and development" activities.

He said these were all coordinated and with the approval of local government leaders.

Castillo appealed to church leaders not to look upon the visiting soldiers as "intelligence operatives" because they might be targeted by the rebels.

The "courtesy calls" 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, an anti-insurgency campaign blueprint that mandates government agencies to work closely with the private sector in combating the influence of communist rebels.

Castillo said if communities and church leaders do not want the military's presence and assistance, then they would not come. "At least we’ve tried," he said.

Reverend Marcela Sacayle, who represented the UCCP's northern Luzon bishop, said the military is welcome at church activities but they should seek the permission of the bishop.

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