BALANGIGA, Eastern Samar (2nd UPDATE)—President Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday lauded the "generosity" of the United States in returning three church bells a century after these were taken as war trophy by American soldiers during the Philippine-American war in the early 1900s.
Duterte read from a prepared speech to express his gratitude for the bells' return, but opted to speak freely when he clarified that the credit should not be given to any single politician.
"The bells are returned and it was really because of the fervent prayers of the entire Filipino nation," Duterte said.
"Nobody but nobody can claim a singular credit for the generous act of the Americans. The bells are returned. The credit goes to the American people and to the Filipino people, period."
In his 2017 State of the Nation Address, Duterte called on the US government to return the bells that American soldiers took from Balangiga after they massacred thousands of townsfolk as payback for the deaths of 40 of their comrades.
The tolling of the bells signaled the surprise attack on the American troops.
"It has been indeed a long and tedious process to the point that the outcome has been disappointing sometimes," Duterte said, underscoring that it took 117 years of prodding from Manila before Washington agreed to return the bells.
"But the long wait is over . . . The homecoming of these artifacts is truly a milestone in the shared and meaningful history of the United States and the Philippines" as the 2 countries move forward towards a "renewed and more vibrant chapter in our relations," Duterte said.
In 2016, Manila loosened ties with its traditional ally Washington after then-US President Barack Obama criticized Duterte's bloody war on drugs.
Duterte has since pivoted to forge closer relations with the world's second largest economy, China.
The President ended his speech by reminding the townsfolk of Balangiga to take care and treasure the items that symbolize how Filipinos "fought for freedom against foreign domination more than a century ago."
"I therefore trust our kababayans in Balangiga and the rest of the country will ensure the protection of these gems and will continue to preserve and promote our culture and history," Duterte said.
"It does not only bring back the glory of the town of Balangiga but also contributes to the full restoration of our dignity as a Filipino," he said.
Duterte arrived in Balangiga shortly before 5 p.m. and witnessed the handover of the Certificate of Acknowledgement from US deputy chief of mission John Law to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
"This is to acknowledge that the Republic of the Philippines has received from the United States of America the three Balangiga Bells," the certificate read.
"The Republic of the Philippines, represented by the Secretary of National Defense, conveys the appreciation to the United States of America for the return of the Balangiga Bells as a symbol of the long-standing relations between the two countries, one that is based on acknowledgement of our shared histories and our work as close allies to safeguard [...] and democratic values."
The certificate was signed by Lorenzana and US Ambassador Sung Kim.
The Diocese earlier said the bells will be tolled to signal the 9-day Christmas masses in the San Lorenzo de Martir parish.
In a statement, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Felter welcomed the return of the bells just in time for the start of Simbang Gabi on Sunday.
"We hope you will ring in the church of Balangiga once again uplifting and gracing us all with the voices of our better angels," he said.
"Maligayang Pasko sa inyong lahat. Malipayon nga Pasko ha iyo nga-tanan."