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Philippines: Priests Turn Into Targets

January 24, 1988|Francis R. Smith | Francis R. Smith, S.J., is a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University.

SANTA CLARA — Late last year three American servicemen, two active and one retired, were killed in separate but apparently coordinated assassinations on the perimeter of Clark Air Base, 50 miles northwest of Manila.

The next day, 300 miles to the south on the sugar-growing island of Negros, I read the newspaper stories. The incident gave new meaning to a State Department bulletin that American citizens should not travel in certain parts of the Philippines, among them the island of Negros. I chuckled to myself; I was now in double jeopardy. As an American priest would I be shot for my religious or my national affiliation? For as a guest of Bishop Antonio Fortich of the diocese of Bacolod I was in bad company, as far as the Armed Forces of the Philippines and its various instruments were concerned. In fact, this danger from the right far outweighed danger from the left.

A student of "liberation theology," I had gone to the Philippines to make academic questions concrete, especially: What turns Christians committed to the following of the crucified Christ into armed revolutionaries? I found it was not ideology. It is an experience. I could finally say what I heard so many church people in the Philippines say: "I do not agree with the Christians who 'go to the hills' but I understand why."

Bishop Fortich, known to his enemies as Ka (Comrade) Tony, is the winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. But years of attempting a ministry of reconciliation on this island he calls a "social volcano" have given way to a program. The diocese of Bacolod has made a preferential option for the poor and is helping them organize into "Basic Christian Communities." Now, despite the fact that Pope John Paul II came to Bacolod in 1981 and gave a ringing endorsement of the work of the diocese, the attack on Bishop Fortich, his priests, sisters and people, especially the Basic Christian Communities, has intensified.

To be a part of this effort in any way is, even under the democratically elected government of Corazon Aquino, to be suspected of being a communist. Indeed, the Philippines military last year leaked to the Manila press a list of 35 of the Bacolod diocese priests who are alleged communists. I got to know many of them and concluded that the army uses the word communist for anyone who seeks social changes in a society where social change is desperately needed. But the label is used to justify murderous attacks on the Basic Christian Communities.

The bishop's stately residence stands a burned-out shell in the central plaza of Bacolod. I asked a city policeman how it happened. He said that the official report blamed an electrical short--but he did not believe it since there was a power outage at the time.

The bishop now makes his home and offices in a small one-story building on the seminary grounds. Beloved by his priests, the bishop used to have an open house for them on Tuesday nights in a central courtyard of this building. They often stayed late. One Tuesday last May the party broke up early, fortunately. Around 11 p.m. a hand grenade was hurled into the courtyard.

In the southern town of Kabankalan, the church, rectory and high school were burned to the ground. The official verdict there was relatively honest: arson, perpetrated by unknown persons.

Being a priest in such a situation means that if you are outspoken, if you implement the diocese's policy of helping to empower the poor through organizing Basic Christian Communities, then your life is in danger. Or there is another response: One can "go to the hills" to join the revolutionary New People's Army. What is a headline-grabbing occurrence in Latin America, a priest-guerrilla, is a common occurrence in the Philippines. A conservative estimate of the number is five dozen. Many no longer function as priests, some still do. Five of the Bacolod priests have taken this path, among them Luis Jalandoni, who was imprisoned by Ferdinand E. Marcos, fled overseas when released on parole and is now the international representative of the NPA and its political arm, the National Democratic Front. Others remain on Negros and indeed are among the leaders of the guerrillas on the island.

On the face of it the option seems unthinkable. But it is the result of frustration, outrage, anger and obscene injustice.

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