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Killings Mar Santo Nino Festivals In Central Philippines

Updated: January 16, 2005 05:00 PM GMT
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Celebrations of thanksgiving and revelry honoring the Child Jesus in two central Philippine provinces were marred by killings, some by a troubled policeman and others blamed on vigilantes.

On Jan. 16 in Kalibo, capital of Aklan province, police officer Jonathan Moreno ran amok, killing colleagues and a little girl, and wounding 34 others at Pastrana Park before fellow policemen shot him.

Gunfire rang out just after the morning Mass, sending the crowd of about 10,000 people that had gathered for the annual Ati-Atihan festival scampering for cover. When the commotion ended, a long trail of blood covered the street, ending where Moreno fell.

The confirmed fatalities, along with Moreno, were Odelardo Magayanes, police director for Aklan; Manuel Ilejay, Kalibo´s police chief; three other policemen; and 10-year-old Jovelyn Cuales.

The revelry was suspended for five hours and resumed at 2:00 p.m. for the festival procession of the statue of the Santo Nino (holy child).

During the Mass that preceded the shooting, Archbishop Onesimo Gordoncillo of Capiz gave a homily on the "language of love." Capiz borders Aklan.

National Police Director General Edgardo Aglipay flew the same day from Manila to Kalibo, 350 kilometers southeast of Manila. There he told reporters that based on preliminary investigations, Moreno had been acting strangely over the weekend, possibly due to family problems, and went berserk in front of Santo Nino Church at around 8:15.

Ati-Atihan features a parade recalling the legendary street dancing during the time of native rulers of Panay Island. Now it is celebrated in honor of the Santo Nino. Some historians say that Spanish colonizers, who arrived in the 1500s, converted native festivals into religious celebrations.

Today, revelers cover their face with black soot and wear bright costumes to resemble the "ati," the original inhabitants of Panay. Tourists and devotees dance in the streets to the beat of drums.

Santo Nino devotee Bellie de la Cruz, 72, had a bullet graze the tip of her nose. She told reporters that she believes the Santo Nino saved her and her granddaughter. According to de la Cruz, the bullet that grazed her could have done more damage did it not first hit the forehead of the statue she carried.

On the same day, nearby Cebu Island celebrated the annual Sinulog festival, also honoring the Santo Nino. The popular festival, centered on the traditional Sinulog prayer dance prayer dance, draws tens of thousands into the streets of Cebu City annually on the third Sunday of January. It commemorates the "birth" of Christianity in the country, when Spanish explorers brought a now-revered 0.3-meter-high wooden Santo Nino statue to Cebu in 1521 and subsequently baptized the first group of Filipinos.

Cardinal Ricardo Vidal of Cebu preached at the 6 a.m. concelebrated Mass at the Santo Nino Basilica pilgrim center in the city, 565 kilometers southeast of Manila. He appealed to the more than 2,000 Massgoers for an end to a recent spate of violence in the city believed to be the work of anti-crime vigilantes. The spree began after Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmena announced he was forming the Police Hunter Team to go after criminals.

Speaking in the local dialect, Cardinal Vidal said, "Only God owns the life of a person, not that person´s parents, or the abortionists, terrorists, or the hunters." Vidal said.

A series of killings that claimed at least 13 lives in December began the day after Osmena´s Dec. 21 announcement of plans to form the special police team, and to give a cash reward for every suspected criminal killed.

The killings appeared to stop after Cardinal Vidal denounced the violence during his homily at a New Year´s Eve Mass. However, on Jan. 16, the day of the Sinulog, three unidentified men were found dead in separate areas in Cebu City, sparking speculations that vigilantes had resumed their activity.

The first victim, found at 2:30 a.m., was dumped in front of a building of a shipping company in the North Reclamation Area. Five hours later, homicide investigators went to the mountain "barangay" (smallest unit of government) of Sirao, Cebu City, after a farmer reported finding the bodies of two men in a grassy area alongside a local road.

Reiterating Pope John Paul II´s message for the Jan. 1 World Day of Peace, Cardinal Vidal said in his homily for the Santo Nino festival: "Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity."

On Jan. 17, Bishop Jose Romeo Lazo of Kalibo met at his residence with businessmen, religious organizations and lay leaders and formed the Jan. 16 Movement. It is aimed, he said, at raising funds for the families of those killed in the Ati-Atihan shooting spree and encouraging people to "express love and devotion to everyone."

"We organized the movement to support the Language of Love (theme) that was provided by Archbishop Gordoncillo in his sermon the other day," before the shooting started, Bishop Lazo told reporters at a press conference in his house the day of the meeting.

Alchem Aldecoa, chairman of the movement, said pledges and donations gathered during the meeting reached 61,000 pesos (US$1,089), and an additional US$500 was pledged by a Santo Nino devotee from California, the United States.


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