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Mission in peril: ‘Red-tagging’ the religious sector in the Philippines

Mark Saludes, PCIJ/PCP

Posted at Jun 05 2021 02:35 PM | Updated as of Jun 05 2021 02:55 PM


This photo essay is part of a series produced from the Capturing Human Rights fellowship program, a collaboration between the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the Photojournalists' Center of the Philippines.
 

Giving aid to the poor is authentic witnessing to the Christian faith but church workers who dare to ask why many people are mired in poverty face the danger of being called a communist.

According to the rights group Karapatan, at least seven church workers have been killed because of their involvement in human rights work, social justice, and environmental protection since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in mid-2016.

Under the Duterte government, several church workers involved in the social justice and human rights ministries in the Philippines have been subjected to vilification and red-baiting or “red-tagging.”

Religious institutions and faith-based groups have been accused by government officials of having links to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA).

Red-tagging is considered “a prelude to many other human rights violations” and puts a person or an entire community in a constant state of fear.

Catholic leaders particularly view it as an attack not only against a religious institution or a church worker but against the Philippine church’s aspiration to become a “Church of the Poor.”

In March 2021, one week after the “Bloody Sunday massacre” in which nine people were killed and six wounded in a crackdown on activists in the Calabarzon region, Redemptorist priest Fr. Alex Bercasio received a death threat.

Unidentified men threw a stone at the compound of a Redemptorist church in Laoag City.

The stone was wrapped in a note that said, “Alex Bercasio, bilang na ang araw mo.” (Alex Bercasio, your days are numbered.)

The Catholic priest is an advocate of indigenous peoples’ rights and has been leading some of the congregation’s social action programs in far-flung communities.

After the incident, Bercasio was forced to temporarily leave his post and seek sanctuary elsewhere.

For the past two years, Jenny Beth Mariano has been forced to move from one place to another, seeking temporary sanctuary in Christian communities and church institutions.

The government’s National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) had accused her of being a “youth recruiter” for the NPA.

Mariano is the president of the Christian Youth Fellowship of the North Luzon-Amburayan Conference of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), a mainline Protestant denomination.In January 2019, Fr. Christopher Ablon was followed by two unidentified men just outside the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) National Cathedral in Manila.

Security footage revealed that the suspicious men had been spying on the gates of the cathedral for more than three hours when Ablon and four other church workers went out.

“They followed us when we boarded a tricycle. I was sitting at the back of the driver. We stopped for a red traffic light at the corner of Taft Avenue and Padre Faura Street when one of my companions shouted, ‘He’s pulling out a gun. We will die here,’” said Ablon. The priest instructed his companion to alight the vehicle. They crossed the road and went back to the cathedral.

On Nov. 5, 2019, the Department of National Defense listed the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), a group of 10 Christian denominations and organizations, as one of the “front organizations of local communist terrorist groups.”

The NTF-ELCAC branded the NCCP, along with two of its member churches – the IFI and the UCCP – as an “open sectoral organization” of the communist rebel group in the country, in a document posted on its social media account.

The anti-communist agency claimed that these religious institutions had direct links to Christians for National Liberation, an underground movement and a member organization of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the CPP’s political arm.

In 2020, the Commission of Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches appealed to the UN Human Rights Council and the Philippine government to “put an end to human rights violations against church people.”

The commission urged the Philippine government to rescind its counter-insurgency program, “which has resulted in many human rights violations.” It called for respect for freedom of religion and the exercise of ministries promoting religious beliefs.

This church of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) in Sudipen town, La Union province serves as the headquarters of the UCCP’s North Luzon-Amburayan Conference.

In August 2019, Conference Minister Rev. Jun Paplonot appealed to the Philippine Army to stop spying on the church. The Protestant pastor said the presence of military personnel in UCCP churches had caused ‘fear and distress’ among members. Several lay leaders and pastors of the UCCP North Luzon-Amburayan Conference have been subjected to vilification and ‘red-tagging’ for the past four years because of their ministries for the poor and social justice. ‘We don't just pray and worship but be part of the lives of the people. We cover justice, peace, the integrity of creation and ecumenism,’ said Paplonot.

Jenny Beth Mariano, a 25-year-old youth church leader, looks in the mirror to examine if she’d put her contact lenses properly.

Last year, Mariano was forced to cut her long hair, use contact lenses instead of eyeglasses, and dress differently to steer clear of surveillance. The anti-insurgency National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict has accused her of being a ‘youth recruiter’ for the communist-led New People’s Army in the Ilocos region. Mariano, the president of the Christian Youth Fellowship of the North Luzon-Amburayan Conference of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, was ‘red-tagged’ because of her active involvement in her church's human rights programs.

The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict has named several activists in the Ilocos region as communist youth recruiters.

One of them is Jenny Beth Mariano, a 25-year-old church youth leader of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. Memes and posters with the images and names of Mariano and other activists circulated in various social media platforms, linking them to the communist-rebels. Mariano is also the spokesperson of the Ilocos Human Rights Alliance (IHRA), which documents human rights violations and state-sanctioned abuses in the region. IHRA has recorded cases of at least 11 church workers who have been red-tagged or have experienced intimidation and harassment. Mariano’s parents, both Protestant church leaders, were also accused by the anti-insurgency task force of being supporters of communist rebels. Last year, the military installed a detachment 200 meters away from the Mariano residence in Pugo town, La Union province.

Jenny Beth Mariano and another youth activist close the door of the office of Ilocos Human Rights Alliance (IHRA).

In 2019, IHRA voluntarily subjected its office to an ocular inspection to prove that there were no guns and explosives inside the building. Several human rights organizations accused by the government of being “front organizations” of the Communist Party of the Philippines followed suit, volunteering their offices for ocular inspections by representatives of local government units, the Commission of Human Rights, and other civil society groups. In the past two years, a number of offices of mass organizations across the country were raided by police looking for illegal firearms and explosives. On March 7, 2021, nine activists were killed in what police claimed were shootouts during multiple dawn raids in Rizal province.

Two coffins with anti-communist slogans are placed at Guadalupe Bridge in Makati and in Quezon City on March 28, the founding anniversary of the communist-led New People’s Army.

Names and faces of student-youth activists who joined the armed struggle and died were printed on the propaganda material.

Redemptorist priest Fr. Alex Bercasio (front), other church workers, and members of the Dumagat tribe wait for the boats that will bring them home after a two-day humanitarian mission in Umiray, a village in General Nakar, Quezon, in this photo taken in 2018.

Bercasio led a team of church workers from different Christian denominations that brought emergency food aid to the Dumagat people who have been displaced by the fighting between communist rebels and government forces. In the background are soldiers who visited the area on the second day of the humanitarian mission.

A church worker shows a digital photo of a letter that reads, “Alex Bercasio, bilang na ang araw mo.” (Alex Bercasio, your days are numbered.)

Redemptorist priest Fr. Alex Bercasio received the letter, which his congregation believed to be a death threat, on March 14. The note came wrapped on a stone thrown by an unidentified person in the compound of a Redemptorist church in Laoag City where Bercasio was assigned. The incident happened a day after Bercasio’s March 7 homily that condemned the killing of nine activists in what rights groups dubbed as “Bloody Sunday.” Dumagat tribe member Puroy dela Cruz, who was one of the nine slain activists, was a lay worker of the Redemptorist congregation and leader of the Samahan ni Maria in Tanay, Rizal. Dela Cruz was Bercasio’s friend. The priest met the slain Dumagat when he served in the congregation’s mission station in Tanay.

Redemptorist priest Fr. Alex Bercasio wears a bracelet made up of colorful beads.

The bracelet was given to him by the Dumagat in Tanay, Rizal. Fr. Bercasio served in the congregation’s mission station in Rizal for more than three years. He led various social action programs and land and human rights campaigns. The priest is a staunch activist for indigenous people’s rights and a cultural worker. The priest says his mandate to help build the “Church of the Poor” puts him at the crosshairs of government forces fighting communist rebels.

A church worker reviews security footage in the office of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) in Quezon City.

The NCCP installed additional cameras within its perimeter to record and monitor the people who come in and out of the compound after a series of uninvited visits from the police and suspected military intelligence agents. At 1:35 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 19 2021, the security guard on duty noticed two men wearing plain clothes riding a red Yamaha NMax motorcycle with a Philippine National Police sticker. The men stopped in front of the guard post outside the gate. One of them, wearing a gray shirt, removed his helmet, alighted, and took photos and videos of the NCCP office. They stayed for four minutes before leaving. The anti-insurgency National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict accused the NCCP of being a “front organization” of the Communist Party of the Philippines in 2019.

Fr. Christopher Ablon of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) is shown inside his church’s sanctuary. In the past four years, he has been subjected to vilification and ‘red-tagging.’

He was transferred to the IFI National Cathedral from Mindanao in 2017 after experiencing harassment and intimidation supposedly from government forces. In January 2019, Ablon and four other church workers were followed by gunmen outside the cathedral. Security footage revealed that the men were spying on the gates of the cathedral for more than three hours when Ablon and four other church workers went out. “They followed us when we boarded a tricycle. I was sitting at the back of the driver. We stopped for a red traffic light at the corner of Taft Avenue and Padre Faura Street when one of my companions shouted, ‘He’s pulling out a gun. We will die here,’” said Ablon. The priest instructed his companion to alight the vehicle. They crossed the road and went back to the cathedral.

Fr. Christopher Ablon joins a protest rally on May 1, Labor Day. Despite the red-tagging and threats to his life, the priest said he would continue to work for human rights, justice, and peace.

The priest’s brother, Bishop Antonio Ablon, was forced to leave his diocese in Mindanao because of death threats. The military has accused the prelate of being a member of the New People’s Army. Bishop Ablon is now in Germany where he was given political asylum.

Screen shots of anti-communist materials posted in different social media platforms by the state security forces are projected on a wall during a discussion on red-tagging by some members of the media and church groups.

The materials showed names and faces of some church leaders linked to the communist rebels. A screenshot of a part of a document released by the National task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict was also shown. It branded some religious institutions as “open sectoral organizations” of the underground group Christians for National Liberation, a member organization of the communist-led National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Among the organizations that were red-tagged were the Promotion of Church People’s Response, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, and the Iglesia Filipina Independiente or the Philippine Independent Church.