CEBU, Philippines — At high noon Thursday, the 13 devotees of the Sagrado Corazon Senor religious cult fell to their knees in the detention area of a military camp here and prayed for strength to resume their holy war against communism.
For 15 minutes, they mumbled sacred incantations, fingered amulets that they believe make their bodies bulletproof and invoked the power of their master, a bearded Filipino religious zealot who claims to be a reincarnation of Jesus. They repeat this ritual five times daily in the belief that it will lead them to victory in their violent fight against Philippine Communist insurgents.
On Thursday, the Sagrado devotees were praying all the harder. Their local leader said it was nothing less than a matter of survival for the bizarre, militant cult, which claims 2,000 members on Cebu Island alone and as many as 150,000 throughout the Philippines.
On Tuesday, the 13 cultists had shot, hacked and nearly killed two government militiamen, allegedly after they mistook them for Communist rebels on the outskirts of the city. And that shoot-out has focused unprecedented attention on what must rank among the Philippine armed forces' most controversial instruments in its anti-communism crusade.
The religious cult, a Philippines-based Christian offshoot whose members claim to believe that they are invincible "soldiers of Christ," is among many right-wing vigilante groups that have apparently been given official sanction by the armed forces to help fight the country's 18-year armed Communist insurgency.
Although fiercely independent and secretive, the cult has joined forces with several other right-wing, anti-Communist organizations in the remote rural regions of at least four key Philippine provinces, where the government military has had limited success in combatting the growing rebellion.
Fighting with homemade machetes, spears, darts, slingshots, rocks and sometimes firearms supplied by the armed forces, the Sagrado Corazon Senor (Sacred Heart of the Lord), according to cult leaders and local military commanders, has driven Communist rebels out of many villages where the government and army of President Corazon Aquino has had little or no influence.
Aquino herself has given conflicting signals about whether she endorses the rightist vigilante groups. Two weeks ago, she ordered them disbanded. But the next day, in the face of criticism from senior military commanders and several of her political advisers, Aquino amended the order, requesting only that an official study be made of the groups' activities.
Aquino's armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, and her secretary of local governments, Jaime Ferrer, have both endorsed the use of citizen vigilante groups, armed only with traditional weapons such as knives and spears, as an adjunct to the military's current campaign against the rebels.
Fears of Death Squads
Roman Catholic Church leaders, academics and leftist politicians have voiced fears that the vigilantes could become death squads similar to those accused of killing civilians in some Latin American countries.
The most controversial, by far, have been Sagrado Corazon Senor's "soldiers of Christ."
The sect is also known here by the name Tadtad, meaning "chop chop" in the local dialect and referring to the cult's initiation rites and to the treatment it gives its enemies.
Before a devotee is inducted, Sagrado's leaders say, a priest tests his faith by chopping the inductee's arms and wrists with a machete. If his faith is strong, it is said, the devotee's limbs will not be severed; the blade barely leaves a scratch. However, in several villages of Cebu, the cult's leaders concede, there are amputees of lesser faith.
As for the way they treat their enemies, military authorities in Cebu and on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where the sect is strongest, have reported finding several severed heads of suspected Communist rebels in recent weeks.
Father Ramon Fruto, a Catholic priest who is controversial here for his criticism of right-wing vigilantes, said, "There is apprehension that these religious cults can be used, and they are being used, as agents of the military who are not accountable to anyone."
Shoot-Out a 'Misencounter'
Few of the encounters involving the Sagrado Corazon Senor cult in recent months better illustrate that lack of accountability, and its potential for future chaos, than Tuesday's shoot-out in Cebu.
Military authorities call Tuesday's incident a "misencounter," in which they say the cultists and two plainclothes militiamen mistook each other for Communist rebels.
The militiamen and the cultists both opened fire. The cultists then moved in and began chopping away at the government men, leaving them critically wounded. They realized their mistake hours later after taking refuge in a nearby military camp.