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Philippine priests under attack for standing for environment, human rights

A growing number of priests, and other church people, have been under attack for standing for the cause of the environment

A growing number of priests, and other church people, have been under attack or are being threatened for standing for the cause of the environment and human rights.

A few days after Redemptorist priest Alex Bercasio paid tribute to a slain leader of an indigenous community, the priest received a death threat.

A stone was thrown at the church compound in the northern city of Laoag with a message that the priest’s days are numbered.

In March this year, Father Bercasio was forced to leave his post and seek sanctuary somewhere else.




Last month, a tarpaulin was posted outside the compound of the Redemptorists’ Laoag Mission Community tagging the missionaries as communist supporters.

Meanwhile, in the Southern Tagalog region, unidentified men have been tailing Father Warren Francis Puno, director of the Ecology Ministry of the Diocese of Lucena.

Earlier, a community leader, who is close to the priest, received a message that says “Silence that priest because if you won’t make him stop, we will.”

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Since 2015, Father Puno has been leading a movement against the operation of coal-fired power plants and coal mining projects in the region.

“There are people who are not happy with what we are doing. And they will do everything to stop us in this crusade for the protection of the environment,” he said.

In the southern Philippine province of Surigao del Sur, Father Raymond Montero Ambray has been the subject of vilification and red-tagging campaigns for his work with indigenous peoples.

Online posters and tarpaulins in various public places with the name and photograph of the priest have been circulating.

Redemptorist priest Alex Bercasio (Photo by Mark Saludes)

In November last year, he was among 17 individuals who have been tagged by authorities of to have links with the underground communist movement.

A Catholic missionary nun and two Protestant bishops were also included in the list.

“If the government cannot protect human rights defenders, we have no one to turn to but the people who can attest to the sincerity of our ministry,” said Father Ambray.

Bishop Modesto Villasanta of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines said they have been targeted because of their “ministry for the poor.”

“One thing in common with the people whose faces and names are on those posters is that we are all working and defending indigenous people’s rights,” said the Protestant bishop.

Bishop Villasanta said he fears for the lives of the human rights defenders because those who had been red-tagged in the past “ended up dead.”

In August 2020, Church worker Zara Alvarez was gunned down in Bacolod City in the central Philippines months after a poster with her photograph and name was displayed in public.

Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos appealed to the public to “continue to speak because silence kills” as his diocese marked Alvarez’s first death anniversary on August 17.

As a tribute to Alvarez and those who have been killed, the prelate ordered the tolling of bells in all churches and chapels in the Diocese of San Carlos from August 9 to 17.

Bishop Alminaza said the list of people who have been killed on the island of Negros “is filled with the selfless, generous, compassionate, hard-working, and courageous.”

Father Raymond Montero Ambray (Photo by Mark Saludes)

In 2018, nine sugarcane workers were killed in Sagay town in Negros Occidental province. In March the following year, 14 farmers who were tagged as communist rebels were also killed.

“When we ring the bells, we ring them to remember the dead and console their loved ones,” said Bishop Alminaza.

“We also ring the bells to prick the conscience of those who kill, those who plot these sinister crimes against fellow Filipinos,” he added.

Bishop Alminaza said the tolling of bells is also a call for hope that the public would “reflect on these despotic killings and become the defenders of human rights, the environment, and the dignity of life.”

“We must not be afraid to continue doing what is right. We must grow and expand our ministries to build peace,” he said.

Church worker Zara Alvarez (Photo by Mark Saludes)

The prelate urged the Christian faithful to “stand in solidarity with the poor and exploited to address the structural and historic injustices that have caused the great economic disparity.”

From 2016 to 2020, human rights and environmental groups have documented at least 186 killings among environmental defenders, and thousands of human rights violations related to the defense of the environment and human rights.

The group Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment documented 282 killings of environmental defenders since 2001.

At least 66 percent, or 186 out of the 282 cases, occurred under the Duterte administration.

The country ranked first and second in the world’s most dangerous place for environmental activists in 2018 and 2019, respectively, according to London-based watchdog Global Witness.

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