Why Only in Albay?

Church Bells Toll Against Killings

Posted by cmfr | Posted in In Medias Res, Melinda Quintos de Jesus | Posted on 01-12-2016


Every 9 p.m. in Albay (PDI), church bells toll to call the faithful to collective prayer for an end to drug killings. In a letter read in all the 45 churches in the province, Bishop Joel Z. Baylon, explained the practice as a response to the violence, specifically to yet another repeated vow uttered by President Rodrigo R.  Duterte (PRRD) to continue with the execution of drug addicts, further warning offenders to stay at home to avoid execution.

The Catholic Church in this still predominantly Catholic country has been silent for too long as the government has justified the violence as a way of solving a problem. Even now, those disturbed by the EJKs must ask, why are church bells ringing only in Albay? Bishop Baylon has been only among the few to undertake public protest. Bishop Socrates Villegas of the diocese of Pangasinan led a candle-lit procession in Dagupan, earlier and has followed this up with critical statements.

These two church leaders have not taken on PRRD for any of the other controversial issues that have provoked other critics, including former president, Fidel Ramos, who had supported him. These two bishops have not said anything critical about the president’s declared war against drugs, only that this “war” has literally caused casualties in numbers associated with military combat.

Baylon has pointed out that those killed are mostly from the poorest of the poor. Bishop Baylon wrote, “It saddens us to see that the majority of the victims are the very same poor whose lives you promised to protect and alleviate from the shackles of abject poverty.”  The symbolic sounding of the bells is substantiated by significant action.   Working with the community, the prelate has created “Harong Paglaom” – a sanctuary where addicts can receive counselling and other measures for recovery.

The president, however, has shown no signs of relenting. Already, over 5,000 Filipinos have fallen as police continue their operations, in some instances, breaking into homes and shooting sleeping suspects dead.  Other deaths have been charged to vigilante groups or drug trade factions, but sure these have broken out as a consequence of the president’s approach.

I ask, why are the bells tolling only in Albay?  Should not the Church be the shining light on this crisis that has befallen our nation?

How do killings reflect on our faith?  What does the silent acceptance of the taking of lives say about us as a people of shared spiritual belief? What does this say about a country that has boasted historically about being the only Christian country in Asia?

Indeed, like the rest of society, the church leaders in our country are divided. Some may be restrained by the Vatican’s previous counsel that clerics should not be involved in politics. How disappointing then that they seem unable to connect the principles of love, forgiveness and redemption to political issues, which of course, sustain many aspects of public as well as personal life. Are these teachings without salience in the assessment of the use of power to take away lives?

Duterte’s vocal supporters have responded to media critics and others protesting EJKs with vehemence, throwing insults and threats to anyone who dares question anything the president decides to do. They see the killings as a necessary strategy for him to succeed.

What does this make of us as a nation? What does this make of us as Christians?

Some voices on social media can do nothing but unleash insults and obscenities against anyone who would question Duterte. The exchange in cyberspace has slipped into Babel, with little value given to human connection and meaningful expression. Alas the most followed leaders in social media trade on lies and terms of degrading incivility, proudly claiming that what they feel or believe is all that matters.

Where then are the prophetic voices of our faith? We are waiting to be pulled back to the center, to core values and beliefs. But we hear only mostly fearful silence from the community of faith. Bishop Villegas and now Bishop Baylon are clearly isolated from their peers in the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. Their isolation would seem a tragic failure of faith.

I and others like me in the community of faith do not live in a dream world.  I am not blind to the reality nor am I ignorant of the evil of crime and of drugs in our streets but drugs are not the only cause of violence. CMFR has worked against impunity in the killings of journalists as well as electoral violence in 2016. I am convinced that the application of killings as a solution to drugs is not going to eradicate drugs. If we do not speak out against the killings, it will make us and the generations after us even more prone to violence than we are already.

And so we cannot stay silent. And it is time for the Church to be heard as we can be strengthened hopefully by its guidance and its active leadership.

We pray that Pope Francis hears us. His visit to us not so long ago preached mercy and compassion.  Two million Filipinos lined the streets and stood in the rain to cheer him and to hear him say Mass.

Media reports noted how Filipinos took to his visit with unmatched fervour and devotion.  Today, these same people cannot seem to find the compassion for those who have lost their way, for the “sinners” who are victims themselves and for those who, given the chance, could find their way back to redemption?

We need to be in touch with our shared spiritual resources, to decide that our faith is not just preaching doctrine that has no application to real life, including politics. We ask for the guidance about how we should proceed to bring to life the message of God’s love, of freedom and justice as values that must be brought to life with action.

At the end of the papal visit, a journalist from the Vatican asked, are Filipinos going to make this experience a lasting one, one that will change their lives?  I found myself thinking then – will we continue to live our lives in compartments, Mass on Sundays and prayers in one room and politics in another?

The president has said without apology that he has no use for religion. Which is a challenge to the Church in the Philippines, for what use is religion if it cannot lead us from the principles of faith to active practice that will define our way of life.