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Father Shay Cullen is an Irish Columban missionary who has worked in the Philippines since 1969. In 1974, he founded the Preda Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to protecting the rights of women and children and campaigning for freedom from sex slavery and human trafficking.

The Columban priest who was murdered saving Filipinos

The Columban priest who was murdered saving Filipinos

Father Rufus Halley was a familiar sight on his motorbike in Marawi. (Photo: Father Donie Hogan)

Published: August 28, 2021 03:39 AM GMT
Father Rufus Halley stood for the rights of Muslims who were oppressed and targeted by the Philippine military

It is exactly 20 years since the violent death of Father Rufus Halley on Aug. 28, 2001. He was a missionary of the Society of St. Columban, my classmate and friend.

Born in Ireland, he was on his chosen assignment in the Prelature of Marawi, Mindanao, building bridges between Muslims and Christians. He was revered and respected as a prophet of peace by both communities.

Over the years, many Columban missionaries like Father Rufus lived and worked among the poor and oppressed, bringing education and hope to countless people in the Philippines and countries all over the world.

When we met in Manila, we would sit in the silence of the chapel in the Columban houseman. We shared our joys and sorrows, challenges and triumphs, fears and worries.

We had received threats for supporting the rights of the poor and opposing the evildoers. That is the task of being a missionary.

It is a long sacred tradition for men and women, priests and laypeople to go on a mission. They leave families and friends for a life of dedication to justice in foreign lands.

His spirit and memory live on, inspiring, encouraging and empowering people he lived and worked for

It is a commitment for life to bring the Gospel message of God’s love and justice, human dignity and rights to the poor. It is the path and life we have chosen. Like many others, Father Rufus had answered that call.  

Several Columban missionaries suffered as did Jesus of Nazareth. They were reviled, betrayed, falsely charged by the evildoers and imprisoned.

Many stayed with the people through war and pestilence and gave hope and help. In 72 years of missionary work, 24 missionaries died violent deaths in serving the people of the Philippines.

Father Rufus was one of those who gave his life for his friends.

Missionaries of all nationalities, men and women, have given their lives not only for a daily commitment to the poor but also for their unshakable belief that love of neighbor, goodness and truth will overcome evil.

Rufus Halley lived out that commitment. His spirit and memory live on, inspiring, encouraging and empowering people he lived and worked for. His spirit lives on with his Columban brothers and sisters.

Rufus was a man with a mission to be one in friendship with people of all faiths. He was a bridge builder and a peacemaker. He negotiated a peace deal that healed years of gunfights and killings between two families. He brought them peace.

He was director and a teacher in his school, Our Lady of Peace in Malabang, Marawi. He brought the students together with a shared life experience of education, where understanding and mutual respect were the values that would unite both Muslim and Christian communities together.

He was well loved by Muslims and Christians. They respected and admired him, trusted him, loved him. He was a friend to everyone, hurt no one, loved all and never said no when asked for help. He spoke their languages fluently and blended with their customs and culture.

At one time in 1989, Rufus surprised everyone when he went to work as a salesman in a Muslim store. He was learning the local language and the customs. But more than that, he was being a humble friend to the Muslim community. Rufus was one of them and was a positive influence in promoting interreligious dialogue, peace-making and uniting the communities.

A man of peace and reconciliation became a victim of a terrible violent crime

Rufus stood against the violence and aggression directed at the Muslim Maranao people and Christian villages that were believed by the military to harbor rebels.

He fought for the rights of the Muslims who were oppressed and targeted by the Philippine military. He did not bless their weapons or celebrate Mass for the local commander, which would be a mockery as they were shelling Muslim villages.

His school became a refuge for Muslims during military operations. This likely made him a suspect in the eyes of the military and a prime target.

Then one day, on Aug. 28, 2001, he was riding his motorcycle to officiate at the wedding of a poor young couple in a village when he was accosted by a band of heavily armed men. They wanted to take him away but he tried to escape and they shot him dead at point-blank range, according to a witness.

A man of peace and reconciliation became a victim of a terrible violent crime. The gun violence he had stood against came to silence him. He died for his beliefs, his values and his solidarity with the oppressed. 

Who were these men? It was difficult to prove amid the fighting between Philippine military forces and rebel Muslim groups. The military and political authorities said the men were kidnappers who posed a regular threat in that area at that time.

We may never know who killed Rufus. But he died for what he believed and stood for — his love of goodness and truth, his stand against wrongdoing and violence, his life of virtue, goodness and service to the poor and the spiritual values he lived and shared.  

Irish missionary Father Shay Cullen, SSC, established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in the Philippines in 1974 to promote human rights and the rights of children, especially victims of sexual abuse. 

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