Stop the killing

Local clergy protest the assassination of Philippine journalists, lawyers and Christian leaders during a World Day of Prayer

Clergy carry flowers and pictures of dead church workers as they lead protesters to the state Capitol.

Clergy carry flowers and pictures of dead church workers as they lead protesters to the state Capitol.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Two by two, a solemn procession of clergy led a line of supporters on a short march through downtown Sacramento last Friday. Draped in robes and carrying red flowers, the pastors and bishops followed a man beating a slow, mournful drumbeat, a dirge for the dead. At the back of the line, a couple held up a sign that read, “Stop the killing.” Others carried black and white posters with the names and faces of 15 Filipino clergy and church workers, victims in a spate of politically motivated murders. When the small group reached the Capitol steps, the names of the 15 were read aloud and the group responded in unison, “Presente!”

The march was part of an event at Westminster Presbyterian Church on the World Day of Prayer that was part religious service and part political protest. A bishop from the United Methodist Church stood at the podium and explained that a 17-member fact-finding team had just returned from the Philippines where they’d talked with widows who could point to the spots where their loved ones were sitting when they were killed.

“We are still reeling with the tearful accounts of widows, uncles, children … because their relative was gunned down in their beds,” said Bishop Beverly Shamana. “They showed us bloody pictures of assassinated family members in their beds.”

Though the politically motivated killings occurred far from downtown Sacramento, they were experienced as intensely personal deaths for local clergy who had relationships with the United Church of Christ, Philippines.

For instance, Larry Emery, pastor for the Walnut Grove Presbyterian Church, was in the Philippines last May when Noli Capulong, a 26-year old church worker, was gunned down by two masked men on a motorcycle. Emery had known Capulong well. The young man was shot just as church leaders had come together to pass a resolution condemning political killings.

Human-rights groups say that more than 800 lawyers, journalists, clergy and human-rights activists have been assassinated since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took office in 2001. Though Arroyo’s office claims the numbers are inflated and that her military staff is not responsible, an independent United Nations investigator, Philip Alston, returned from the Philippines in February saying he’d found a significant number of the killings convincingly attributed to the armed forces. The number of the dead is still disputed.

To raise awareness, Emery recently sent a letter to U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, the new chairperson of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Emery explained that he experienced first hand the human-rights situation when he and a small group of Filipino pastors were detained during a humanitarian mission in a small rural village. “The [armed forces of the Philippines] claimed we were aiding rebels. We were released after several hours only to be told later that the reason the other pastors did not ‘disappear’ was that they had an American with them.”

Emery and other supporters want Boxer to hold hearings with Filipino pastors and victims of human-rights abuses during an international ecumenical conference in Washington, D.C., this month. Bishop Eliezer Pascua, the general secretary of the United Church of Christ, Philippines, was in Sacramento to attend the World Prayer Day event and hopes to meet with Boxer when he travels to D.C. this week. He claims that the politically motivated killings have nearly divided his church of one million people—the largest mainline protestant church in the Philippines. As the killings continue, clergy and church members accuse each other of being Communists, or being aligned with other leftist groups that oppose the government.

“Our church people, pastors, bishops and conference ministers, and those that are working closely with the church under our community-based programs, are basically helping the poor people in their plight against issues that affect their economic condition, their political and civil rights,” Pascua told SN&R. “I know them, these pastors and lay leaders. They could never be Communists, but are plainly helping and serving because of the people in their respective communities.”

Boxer and her staff have been sympathetic, said Emery, but they don’t plan to hold hearings on the issues this month. “They’re aware of the situation and appreciate us making them more aware,” said Emery, who believes that the United States is too overwhelmed with efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations to respond to the Philippines, even as a U.S. ally.

“The U.S. government gives the Philippines millions of dollars in anti-terrorism and military aid,” said Emery. “The U.S. should analyze and review the human-rights situation. Ask if any support to the military has been used to support the killings.”

At Westminster, Emery urged the congregation to look for ways to make a difference. “We can put pressure on our elected representatives in Washington, D.C. … We can also write and put pressure on our state representatives right here in Sacramento.” Emery urged people to write legislators and insist firms divest from the Philippines.