[ACNS, by Rachel Farmer] Episcopal Church bishops in the Philippines have criticised their government for naming the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, along with 17 other civil society organisations, as fronts for local communist terrorist groups.
The Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Philippines, Rex Reyes, a former Secretary General of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), has issued a statement, backed by the country’s Episcopal Church, calling the action “irresponsible and malicious”.
The NCCP, of which the Episcopal Church in the Philippines is a part, was labelled as a Communist Terrorist Group front by a Philippines intelligence chief at a public hearing in the Congress of the Philippines.
The Prime Bishop of the Philippines, Joel Atiwag Pachao, said the Episcopal church and lawyers from member churches are prepared to challenge the accusation in court, but held off after being assured that the NCCP was not included in the list. He said: “It is ironic to note that many of the organisations cited are charitable organisations active in relief and rehabilitation projects.”
In the Episcopal Church statement, Bishop Rex Reyes said the NCCP never engaged in covert acts and had been opposed to martial law and the violation of human rights. He said: “The trail blazing efforts of the NCCP for peace and justice in this country is also an open book. 1 am proud to say that among the councils of churches worldwide the NCCP is yet reckoned as a vibrant, enduring, leading and recognised ecumenical formation. This is so because the NCCP sees its life and work from the perspective of the vulnerable, oppressed and marginalised.”
He went on to highlight corruption in high places and said: “There is nothing wrong when Christians point out that there is so much corruption… What is wrong, if not downright subversive, is when a mindset that kills, persecutes and name calls suppresses those who espouse principled dissent and activism. One should know how principled dissent and activism have made this world more peaceful and just. … What is right is standing up for human rights, justice and peace. I stand with the NCCP.”
The government action has been widely condemned by Christian leaders globally with the heads of the Christian Conference of Asia and the World Council of Churches speaking out against the listing.
General Secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), Dr Mathews Chunakara said: “Indiscriminately labelling the National Council of Churches in the Philippines as part of some ‘front organization’ of local ‘Communist Terrorist Groups’ is a reprobate act by the Department of National Defense of the Armed Forces in the Philippines, and such actions will only create fear among the NCCP staff and their families.”
World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Dr Olav Tveit said: “The WCC strongly rejects the accusations made against the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and we stand in solidarity with the people of the Philippines who are mourning loved ones and living in fear of becoming the next victim. We call upon the government of the Philippines to end the war on drugs, to take measures to hold accountable those who have carried out extra-judicial killings, and to respect and protect the human rights and equal God-given dignity of all people in the Philippines."
Dr Tveit said such ‘red-tagging’ could lead to increasing harassment and attacks by security forces and militias against those listed. He said: “The National Council of Churches in the Philippines has consistently spoken out against Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte's ‘war on drugs,’ which has been marked by extra-judicial killings of suspected drug traffickers and users by security forces, with perpetrators of such killings enjoying almost complete impunity.”
The National Council of Churches in the Philippines has also consistently advocated for the rights of the poor, indigenous peoples, and many other marginalised and vulnerable groups. “Bishops, other clergy and congregation members, along with many other human rights defenders in the Philippines, have already been targeted, arrested and threatened with reprisals,” Tveit said.
According to the head of the CCA, Dr Chunakara, the NCCP has been consistently involved in human rights advocacy as part of its commitment of prophetic witness. He said: “The allegations levelled against the NCCP and the propaganda tactic of ‘red-tagging’ is deplorable.” He also urged the Philippine government and its military to rethink its all-out war strategy, and stop the branding of ecumenical organisations such as the NCCP or any other church-related bodies as ‘communists’.
The UN Human Rights Council has called for a report on the human rights situation in the Philippines which is to be reviewed in June 2020.