‘Fear is always at our side’

An artwork from the entryway of a human rights museum in Manila commemorates victims of government and police violence against citizens. Photo: Chris Brittain
Published May 17, 2023

The Church and human rights abuses in the Philippines

“It is not easy to be a church in this country.” This was a message a bishop of the Philippine Independent Church (Iglesia Filipina Independiente), a member of the Anglican Communion, shared soon after we met over lunch at his diocesan office. The bishop’s claim may strike a North American as strange, since, according to the 2020 national census, 85% of the population of the Philippines identifies as Christian (about 79% of whom are Roman Catholic). But his remark has nothing to do with concerns over church attendance or the secularization of society. Instead, it refers to the poor human rights record in the country, as well as the widespread poverty and ongoing political tensions and conflict. Although the Anglican Church of Canada has already sought to support Christian leaders in this struggle, the bishop’s words point to the need for Anglicans around the world, including Canada, to do more.

When church leaders in the Philippines speak publicly about human rights abuses, or advocate in support of marginalised peoples, they are often accused of sympathizing with rebel forces associated with the Communist Party or with terrorist groups. As the bishop explained, “If you say the truth here, you will be red-tagged.” “Red-tagging” is the practice of blacklisting individuals or organizations considered to be opposed to the government of the country. The tactic is used by police, the military or government officials to stifle dissent through threats, harassment, even imprisonment or abduction. As one Filipino activist put it, this is “our version of McCarthyism.” Yet, for the bishop I was speaking with, advocating for human rights, and supporting poor and marginalized peoples in their struggle for a better life, are core aspects of the mission of the Church. Another bishop I met, who had been imprisoned for 10 months on false charges after being red-tagged, explained that “Fear is always at our side, but fear has no meaning if you are convinced of God’s mission.”

I was in the Philippines representing the Anglican Church of Canada (through the national church’s office of Global Relations) as part of an ecumenical fellowship and learning tour, organized by the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP), and the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP). A delegation of 14 individuals had come for a two-week visit in March from Canada, the United States and Malaysia. We had been invited to the country to observe the current state of human rights since the election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (son of former President Ferdinand Marcus Sr.) in June 2022, and following the post-pandemic re-opening of the country to tourism. What we observed was concerning, to say the least.

After a preliminary orientation in Manila, our delegation divided into four groups and dispersed to different regions of the country. My group flew to the southmost island of Mindanao, where we were hosted by members of the Philippine Independent Church. There we met with 23 people to discuss the situation on the island. These included a human rights lawyer, a sociologist, leaders who worked with Indigenous peoples (known locally as Lumad), community leaders and a range of victims of human rights abuses, including representatives from a Muslim community displaced by government aerial bombing in 2017.

“Portrait of Women Heroes,” by Johnson Bejar and Doods Capiral (2001), shows women remembered for their protest activism or helping victims during the dictatorship period of President Duterte. Photo: Chris Brittain

Soon after we arrived in Mindanao, a local sociologist described the atmosphere on the island: “Every now and again, everything builds up, like a pressure cooker.” One Indigenous woman whom we met over Zoom—too scared to travel to meet us in person—told us about the situation in her village. “The military presence is terrifying because soldiers take and question people accusing them of being members of an enemy group,” she said. “Everyone is tense.” Soon, even my delegation began to experience some of this tension, as we noticed strangers taking photos and videos of our group. Who were these people? What were they going to do with these videos? We never found out, but it gave us a brief sense of what it felt like to live in a surveillance state.

One woman who did travel to meet with us in person described a desperate situation in which she felt trapped between militant rebel groups and the military. Her husband had been recently murdered, although she was uncertain by whom. As a result, she was living in hiding with her four children. She told she was meeting with us because she wanted to raise up “the voice of those in the countryside.” She asked us to tell the world that her people’s rights were being violated and that she didn’t want any other mother to go through what she was facing. “Just because we are poor,” she told us, “we are always trampled on.”

Encounters like this deepened my awareness of how important it is for the church to advocate for international human rights. Sometimes Christians question the concept of human rights, considering it to be overly rooted in modern individualism, and I have even heard someone declare, “Human rights don’t appear in the Bible.” Yet the concept of human rights provides the legal basis to challenge the abuse of vulnerable people like the two women above, and it serves as a legal framework to confront and prosecute those who abuse marginalised people. This surely resonates with the call of Jesus to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22) and with the command of God proclaimed by Jeremiah to “do justice and righteousness and deliver from the hand of the oppressor those who have been robbed (Jeremiah 22:3).

A human rights lawyer my delegation met with in Mindanao told us that the problem in the Philippines is not that there are insufficient laws to protect the human rights of all citizens. The problem, he emphasized, is that “the constitution is undermined” by the ruling forces of the country. “State actors,” he continued, regularly “violate the civil, political, and economic rights” of many citizens. Moreover, “people are living in fear,” he continued, “because if they do something to try to have their rights enforced, they are silenced for fear of being tagged as communists, put in jail, or even killed.” In such a situation, international attention is crucial to pressure the government of the country to uphold its own constitution and laws.

In recent years, the Anglican Church of Canada has supported the work of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) by signing petitions to the International Criminal Court and to the Canadian government. It should continue to do so, and encourage Canadian Anglicans to enhance their advocacy in support of international human rights. I was saddened to hear from the aforementioned bishop of the Philippine Independent Church that when he lobbied leaders of the Communion for support for human rights work in the Philippines at the Lambeth Conference in 2022, he was told that the church can’t be involved in politics.

Supporting the victims of human rights violations in the Philippines is not merely a matter of “politics;” such work is at the core of the mission of God, and thus at the heart of the mission of the Church. Please pray for those working with victims of human rights victims in the Philippines, and please consider doing even more than this: write your member of Parliament to share your concerns about human rights in the country. Consider enhancing your financial support for the work of the national offices of the Anglican Church of Canada in promoting human rights. At the very least, don’t give in to the temptation to dismiss the mission of the Church as mere “politics” that can be ignored by those claiming to follow the risen Christ.


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