Hours after Malacanang made overtures on June 26 for a “dialogue” with the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and leaders of evangelical churches, the Philippine and global boards of the United Methodist Church bared that one of its missionaries has been detained by immigration officials for six weeks.
Two other Methodist missionaries, both on assignments from the church’s Atlanta-based Council of Bishops, are also being prevented from leaving the country, a statement from the World Council of Churches (WCC) said.
The plight of Zimbabwe national Chandiwana Tawanda, now detained in Camp Bagong Diwa, Taguig, American Adam Thomas Shaw and Malawi citizen Miracle Osman, have been taken up by more than 3,200 petitioners of Change.org.
“Pray to #LetThem Leave,” the petition urged.
The United Methodist Church is considered part of the mainstream Protestant formations.
Its Philippine Central Conference, in a statement released June 27, said the missionaries’ immigration problems stem from a February 2018 international fact-finding mission into the December 2017 massacre of eight indigenous leaders in Barangay Ned, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato.
The statement, signed by Bishop Ciriaco Q Francisco, Rev Genesis Antonio, the Philippine Board chair; and executive director, Rev Aniceto R Villalon, Jr, said the three were based in Davao City, the hometown of President Rodrigo Duterte.
They expressed serious concern over the state crackdown on foreign missionaries helping human rights organizations.
The church’s global Council of Bishops called the Philippine church an organic member of the global general conference of lay and clergy. It has three episcopal areas in the country in Davao, Baguio, and Manila.
‘Massive persecution of missionaries’
Krissy Conti of the Public Interest Law Center, counsel to the three missionaries, said the Bureau of Immigration acted on a National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) letter that listed 22 foreign nationals as “involved in communist terrorist group-organized activities.”
The three were among 50 persons, including two Filipino-Americans, held at a checkpoint between Koronadal and General Santos on February 22 as they returned from a visit to kin of the massacre victims.
The Armed Forces claimed the eight men died in a clash between government troops and the New People’s Army. Their families, however, said the men were planting crops in their remote village when soldiers opened fire.
Catholic church officials and even local staff of the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples have said the slain Lumad patriarch, Datu Victor Dayan, was a well-known face in dialogues with state officials. His family has filed a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights.
The Bureau of Immigration (BI) started proceedings on the forfeiture of Shaw’s missionary visa in April, Conti said. The order for him to leave came one week before immigration agents arrested Australian nun, Sr. Patricia Fox, in Quezon City, Conti said.
“We immediately smelled a plan for massive persecution of missionaries,” she said.
Duterte has acknowledged ordering an investigation into Fox’s activities, saying she violated her missionary visa by appearing in rallies. The Australian won a reprieve this month when the Department of Justice said the BI had erred in issuing the forfeiture order on Fox’s missionary visa on grounds of political activism.
Fox is facing a separate deportation case and new hearings on possible cancellation of her visa, which expires September.
Shaw had already applied for an extension of his visa but was ordered to leave his Alien Registration Certificate with the BI’s Davao office.
“They were supposed to forward the application to the main office in Manila, who told us it remained in Davao,” his lawyer said. “Later, their Davao office said the documents were taken by its legal office and then by their intelligence office.”
Shaw’s visa has already expired. He has since been processing requirements for his exit clearance, said Conti in a telephone interview from the BI’s Intramuros headquarters.
Tawanda was detained in Davao City on May 9, three weeks after immigration agents arrested Fox.
The officers booked him for an expired missionary visa and immediately instituted summary deportation proceedings. He was later transferred to the BID detention facility in Camp Bagong Diwa.
Conti said the visa forfeiture case against Tawanda was filed in March. The missionary, who was already near the end of his two-year stint in the country, filed for downgrading of his visa to tourist status and later for voluntary deportation.
“The BI in Davao told him three times to return for processing,” Conti said. “He kept appearing with good faith.”
On his third visit, his visa had already lapsed, the documents with the BI.
“He was told to return. He told BI officials he was just going to have lunch. He told them where he was going. They appeared while he was eating with an invitation to return to their office. He went with them and found out he was being detained,” the lawyer said.
The BI on Wednesday said they were already processing Tawanda’s summary deportation order. But officials said the document was still lacking the signature of two deputy commissioners and BI chief, retired police director Jaime Morente.
Osman, a citizen of Malawi, had her passport confiscated in Davao while trying to renew her missionary visa. While she does not face forfeiture proceedings, Conti said she could not leave since the BI is still trying to track which office has custody of her passport.
The Philippine Central Conference said the foreigners' participation in the fact-finding mission was the only reason for the red flags.
They called the NICA claim of links to communist groups as “absurd.”
“The IFFSM [International Fact-Finding and Solidarity Mission] was meant to reach out to the victims and families of victims of human rights violations in Mindanao. This activity is covered within the defined missionary works of Shaw and Tawanda. They are specifically assigned to immerse and work with local communities in Mindanao, and were sent purposely to "preach good news to the poor, proclaim release of the captives, give sight to blind and to set free the oppressed" (Luke 4.18-19),” the group said.
“For these reasons, they are also required to live in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized and identified themselves with their struggles. Their participation in the IFFSM is in accordance with the doctrines of the United Methodist Church. They did not commit any illegal act.”
The NICA claim contrasts with what police told the missionaries in February: that they were suspected of being “ISIS terrorists.”
At that time, the government was still fighting IS-linked extremists in Marawi City, more than 300 km away from General Santos. They were later released.
Speaking to journalists after their ordeal, Shaw quoted police Inspector Junel Rey Gatera, the checkpoint commander, as saying: “We are in martial law. We have suspensions (sic) of habeas corpus, and because of what happened in Marawi and you go to critical area despite AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and PNP (Philippine National Police) warnings, we are suspecting you as terrorists with ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). So the only thing that can clear you is your IDs.”
The foreigners told police they had paid a courtesy call on South Cotabato Vice Governor Vicente de Jesus and Board Member Romulo Solivio on the first day of the February 19-21 mission. No civilian official dissuaded them from going to the Lake Sebu massacre site.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.