Religious leaders in the Philippines have warned that the government labeling a missionary organization as a front for Communist rebels puts them at risk of extra-judicial killings.
In a March 26 letter to the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. alleged that “EU funds are used to sustain terrorist activities of the longest existing communist-terrorist organization in the world.”
Among the groups listed by Esperon was the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), a national organization of men and religious, priests and laypeople working mostly in Mindanao, the southern part of the country. Also included were noted human rights organizations Karapatan and Ibon.
This followed a similar report on Feb. 21 by Philippines National Security Council to the United Nations, accusing the RMP of using its schools as a training ground for rebels.
Labeling organizations as communist fronts is known as “red tagging” in the Philippines, and can lead to warrantless arrest, detention without charges, torture, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings.
In an April 8 statement, the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP), an association of 327 religious congregations in the Philippines, strongly condemned the “continued barrage of malicious allegations made on the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and other human rights” organizations.
A communist insurgency has plagued the country since 1969, killing more than 40,000 people. In 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte called a unilateral ceasefire with the leftist rebels, to allow for peace talks. However, the rebels repeatedly broke the ceasefire, and in Dec. 2017 the president declared the insurgents to be terrorists.
Many of the human rights groups now being “red tagged” by the government had documented human rights abuses by troops and other security personnel.
The statement by the AMRSP said that “red tagging” is “inimical to democracy and respect for human rights.”
“Fifty years of missionary work speaks for the integrity of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines. Moreover, fifty years of continued presence in the most forgotten places in the Philippines, to accompany the marginalized and poorest farmers and indigenous peoples, is by itself a testimony of the fervent commitment of the religious and the Catholic Church to be living witnesses to the good news of just peace and equity to all Filipinos,” the association said.
“Let the members of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines do their jobs where we in the government and church agencies have failed to go to address issues of peace, education, respect for life, freedom, dignity of persons, good governance and good politics in the far-flung rural areas. Lord, spare our mission partners from deadly malice and give them peace,” it continued.
The RMP has denounced the government’s actions.
“We condemn in the highest terms this slander of our organization and the spreading of lies as regards our programs, advocacy and our Christian mission. Our programs, which include literacy and numeracy for Lumad children [a tribal group], livelihood programs, relief and rehabilitation, training and education for rural communities and campaign and advocacy for land, justice and peace are expressions of our missionary commitment to serve the rural poor in hopes that they live joyfully and authentically—owning the land they till, participating in decision making, enjoying the fruits of their labor and the fullness of life,” the organization said in a statement.
Mindanao is also the site of an Islamist insurgency, and has been under martial law since May, 2017. It is one of the poorest and most marginalized parts of the Philippines.
“To tag our missionary work as terrorism is such a desperate move to vilify us and only reflects the cowardice of those behind this malicious act. We are being targeted because we are vocal against the martial law in Mindanao that has resulted to widespread displacement of rural communities, extrajudicial killings, and other forms of harassments as documented by various fact-finding and solidarity missions in Mindanao; and to sow fear and terror among us in an attempt to impede our activities which has been effective in raising people’s awareness on the plight and legitimate demands of our farmers, fisher folk, and indigenous peoples especially in Northern Mindanao,” the statement continued.
Speaking to journalists, the leadership called the accusations by the government “absurd.”
“We are not a communist organization or a communist front. We are not financing terrorist activities through our projects. Our projects are all well-documented, audited and accounted for,” said Sister Elenita Belardo, the national coordinator of RMP.
“This accusation saddens and angers us at the same time. As rural missionaries, we want to help in whatever way we can out of our faith imperative, and yet, we are being harassed, slandered and vilified continually. This is just a coward and brutal attack against people who are trying to help the oppressed and marginalized,” Belardo said.
The European Union said it would do a financial audit this month after receiving the complaint from the Philippine government.
“Should the allegations be established, the EU immediately would take full legal action,” the EU said.