Priests in the southern Philippine town of Tigbao awoke on the last Friday of September to find that threats had been written on the front wall of their Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) church building. The denomination, also known as the Philippine Independent Church
, split with the Catholic Church early last century amid disquiet over abuses by some Spanish clergy. The slogans defacing the church sought to link its congregation and priests to the New People's Army (NPA), the armed wing of the underground Communist Party of the Philippines. The IFI's Bishop Antonio Ablon of Pagadian was branded as an "NPA coddler." Other slogans tagged the United Church of Christ in the Philippines
, a mainstream Protestant group, and the Catholic Rural Missionaries of the Philippines
, as communists.
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The attacks came as President Rodrigo Duterte accused a broad spectrum of political and human rights groups of conspiring with leftist rebels to topple his two-year-old administration. The three religious groups facing the vilification campaign, in the southern part of the island of Mindanao, are all involved in aiding communities of poor farmers and tribal people being forced from their lands by the military and land developers. "The attacks are not going to defeat the church," said Sister Patricia Fox, an Australian missionary nun who has been fighting an attempt by the Bureau of Immigration to deport her from the Philippines. "We will continue to do the work asked of us by the God of compassion and love. We will continue to help people fight injustice and oppression, poverty and hunger." Bishop Ablon said attacks were brazenly aimed at silencing his continuing human rights and peace advocacy. He told ucanews.com that tribal people and farmers in Mindanao are facing highly militarized conditions. "I have been working together with other advocates to defend them and be their voice," said the bishop. Bishop Ablon linked what he described as harassment to a series of June "solidarity mercy missions" for tribal communities that he conducted. The Catholic Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and the United Church of Christ in the Philippines were also part of the missions that investigated reports of bombings in tribal communities. The bishop said villagers in the town of Dumingag reported harassment by soldiers, including through accusations of tribal links to rebel forces. After the June mission, soldiers visited bishops, priests and village officials who were involved. Bishop Ablon said the threats come as top military officials in the area are seeking to create an inter-agency body aimed at fighting Asia's longest running insurgency. "But they are not fighting armed rebels," said the prelate. "Their real targets are legal organizations, churches and human rights groups that refuse to be silent. They are creating a scenario to justify extraordinary measures." The prelate's younger brother, Father Chris Ablon, who heads a church program to aid tribal people, warned that he would fight back if the bishop is physically attacked. In a Facebook post, the priest wrote: "If you will kill my brother ... which is what usually happens to human rights activists after you vilify them ... I will not seek justice from your courts because we will never get such justice as what happens to all victims of your human rights violations." He said it was the government who turned people into communist rebels because relatives and friends of victims of abuses often choose to join the insurgents. Priests, nuns, Protestant pastors and lay leaders were forced to go underground during the years of martial law under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose rule ended in 1986. Luis Jalandoni, former chairman of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, an alliance of underground groups, used to be a Catholic priest. His wife, Coni Ledesma, is a former nun. While no group has claimed responsibility for painting the slogans on the IFI church wall, witnesses said it was done in full sight of military and paramilitary groups in the area. An army sergeant who spoke with the local clergy said he would not erase the slogans because they might have been ordered by "higher-ups." Earlier, former military chief Eduardo Ano, who now heads the Interior Department, insisted that rebel front organizations, including labor groups, were involved in a "grand scheme" to stir unrest. Armed Forces chief Gen. Antonio Galvez has even named legal organizations, including church groups, as alleged leaders of a plot to oust Duterte.