BACOLOD, Philippines — More than 5,000 Roman Catholics marched through the streets of this provincial capital last Thursday evening carrying giant gold crosses and signs proclaiming that their priests, like Jesus Christ, are not Communists.
The faithful then gathered in the town square, where they listened to a priest declare that "we feel the suffering and the anguish of the majority in Negros because of hunger, joblessness, sickness, subhuman wages and landlessness. We know that this is not the will of God, but the effect of social injustice."
Then, a nun added, "The mission of Christ in spreading the good news to the poor and the oppressed will continue--despite threats and death."
Finally, the island's senior religious prelate, who just two weeks before had narrowly escaped death, pleaded the case for his embattled church, to which more than 85% of all Filipinos belong.
"Please understand the work of the church," Bishop Antonio Y. Fortich urged the gathering. "To work for the poor is God's command. That's what the priests are doing every day. So why do they call the priests Communists? We are not doing this to expand the Communists' ranks. You must understand that it is not wrong to help the poor."
Thursday's rally in the heart of Negros Island had been billed as a "Mass of Reconciliation." But, beneath the surface, it was more an expression of defiance, solidarity and anger by one of the most powerful and increasingly threatened institutions in Philippine society: the Catholic Church. And it seemed to foreshadow more trouble, since that same mood of angry defiance has spread to virtually every institution on one of the nation's most strategic and influential islands.
"It is a sort of protest," said Father Rolex Nueva, a populist priest in one of Negros' most troubled regions. "A protest, and also a thanksgiving that our bishop was not killed.
"The military is trying to deliberately divide the church here and throughout the Philippines. It has become systematic and programmed. And what we are saying here is simply that there are some issues that can unite us as well. This is a show of church solidarity."
"It is a show of force by the church," said respected local journalist Salvacion Verona.
The town square rally was also a sign of the deep turmoil that remains throughout the Philippines in the wake of the May 11 elections for a new national Senate and House of Representatives that brought to power a legislature overwhelmingly consisting of supporters of President Corazon Aquino.
The crucial poll was hailed as the most peaceful and fairest election in the nation's history and its biggest single step toward full democracy since the February, 1986, revolt that overthrew Ferdinand E. Marcos after 20 years of authoritarian rule. But it did little or nothing to mitigate the powerful forces of the extreme political left and right that have kept the Philippines deeply divided.
Indeed, in many regions where the opposition alleges it was cheated by local leaders of Aquino's "people power" coalition, and where the institutions of the church and the military became campaign issues, Filipinos are now more divided than ever.
Unity Pushed by Aquino
Few places provide a better example of those deepening rifts than Negros, an economically wounded island in the central Philippines of 2 million people, an island that has both extreme wealth and crushing poverty and whose symbol is the active volcano in its interior.
It was in the midst of an island-wide storm of Communist guerrilla raids, military strafings and aerial bombing runs, revenge slayings and vicious name-calling that President Aquino last April 25 sternly gave instructions to the province's governor, Daniel Lacson, in a meeting he later described as "a spanking from the president."
Aquino told the island's top church leaders, businessmen, military commanders and human rights advocates last month to make Negros "the example for the rest of the country" of how the warring or polarized sectors of Philippine society can work together and solve their differences by talking.
The church's rally Thursday had followed a week of fasting and prayer by the island's priests, nuns and lay workers, all in response to the president's appeal.
But two days after Aquino's lecture, a fragmentation grenade was thrown at Bishop Fortich's bedroom in what police now say was an assassination attempt, possibly by one of the fanatic right-wing vigilante groups that are forming against the growing Communist insurgency. Verona, for instance, is one of three Negros journalists who say they have received death threats from the military-backed vigilantes recently.
And even as the bishop spoke at Thursday's rally, an anti-Communist citizens' group circulated among the crowd handing out leaflets that called Fortich and his priests "a cancer" in Bacolod.
"You have run out of good will in Bacolod," the open message to Fortich declared. "Your life is at stake from both the right and the left."