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Bishop Antonio Fortich Dies At 89, Known For Social Justice

Updated: July 01, 2003 05:00 PM GMT
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Retired Bishop Antonio Yapsutco Fortich of Bacolod, praised by Pope John Paul II for siding with the poor in the central Philippines, died on July 2. He was 89.

The diabetic bishop suffered "multiple organ failure," his doctor reported in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, 475 kilometers southeast of Manila.

The bishop suffered a stroke in late 2002 and had been hospitalized since April 28 at Riverside Medical Center in Bacolod City. His remains lie in state at the city´s San Sebastian Cathedral until the interment, set for July 15.

The bishop´s death closes more than three decades of his struggle to secure social justice for sugar plantation workers and poor landless farmers in the diocese that once served all of the province. In 1988, Bacolod was divided into three dioceses. He was bishop in the 1970s and early 1980s, much of that time during the martial law government of former president Ferdinand Marcos.

When the pope visited Bacolod in 1981, the bishop once related to UCA News, the pontiff told Bishop Fortich to "keep up the good work." On the bishop´s birthday last August, he cited the message that the pope delivered during the visit as one of the pope´s most powerful messages on behalf of the poor.

"Injustice reigns," Pope John Paul declared at a Mass attended by landless laborers and landowning families, "when the laws of economic growth and ever greater profit determine social relations, leaving in poverty and destitution those who have only the work of their hands to offer."

Born Aug. 11, 1913, to a landowning family in nearby Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental, Bishop Fortich was ordained a priest in 1944 and appointed bishop of Bacolod in January 1967. At that time, Negros Occidental thrived on sugar production and exports until the world price for sugar crashed in the 1970s.

With the country´s sugar industry seriously mismanaged and more than 100,000 children and adults suffering from famine, the attention of international aid groups and other Churches was soon drawn to the diocese.

The bishop said he developed a sense of social justice as a young boy when he worked alongside laborers on his family farm. Sufferings caused by inequity in wealth, especially in land ownership, led him to call Negros Island a "social volcano." He also cited poverty, social inequality and martial law as leaven for the communist movement that attracted some of his priests and nuns, who shared his passion for the liberation of the poor and oppressed.

While he was bishop, Basic Christian Communities mushroomed in the diocese and became the Church´s network for empowering poor people under military rule. In small grassroots churches, neighbors gathered regularly to pray and reflect on what the Gospel told them to do about their community situation.

With Bishop Fortich, these communities suffered the vilification of the land-owning class threatened by the Church´s stand for the poor. One right-wing vigilante group reportedly attempted to assassinate the bishop in 1987 by throwing a grenade into his residence.

After Marcos was ousted in a popular uprising in 1986, then president Corazon Aquino named Bishop Fortich as chairman of the National Cease-fire Committee with communist rebels in 1987. When he retired as bishop in 1989, he denounced a government counterinsurgency campaign that displaced about 35,000 villagers in southern Negros and led to the deaths of about 700 children.

The bishop´s stand led 21 British parliamentarians to nominate him for the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. He did not get it, but in 1973 he did win a Magsaysay Award, often called the "Asian Nobel Prize," for public service. The award commended the Dacongcogon sugar mill cooperative he organized in Negros and particularly noted that the cooperative was partly owned and run by laborers.

Bacolod diocese´s vicar general, Monsignor Victorino Rivas, who was with Bishop Fortich at the time of death, described the prelate as a "very kind man of peace" and a "big help to the poor." He said that Aquino called the hospital room to ask how the bishop was doing and Fidel Ramos, another former president, wrote to say he was praying for Bishop Fortich.

Impeached president Joseph Estrada also wrote on July 2 from detention in a hospital near Manila. Estrada, who is being tried for plunder, wrote that Bishop Fortich "will be happily remembered for his witty remarks and sincere gestures to help public servants achieve their purposes in government. One very important thing that the bishop did was to see that social justice applies to everyone, especially to the poor."

A local daily reported President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo saying soon after Bishop Fortich died that he is "singularly distinguished for his commitment to the poor and for guiding the Church towards the direction of the less fortunate among us."


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