By KYLE EDWARD FRANCISCO
VIGAN CITY — Visita Iglesia is a popular activity among Catholics. Devotees travel from one church to another to pray and pay respect to their patron saint especially during the Holy Week. However, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is giving it a different character.
In the incident reports provided by Ilocos Human Rights Alliance (IHRA), military personnel from the 7th Infantry Division are doing the same thing, hopping from church to church in Ilocos, in Northern Philippines, except for the part where they “pray and pay respect.” The military is, calling their unannounced visits as “courtesy call”. These stopovers in churches and small talks with the clergy are part of their “community engagement program” under the Joint Campaign Plan (JCP) Kapanatagan.
JCP Kapanatagan is the blueprint of the government in implementing Executive Order 70 signed by President Duterte on December 4 last year. The order institutionalized the “whole-of-nation approach” and created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). This mandates the military, police and civilian agencies work closely with each other in combating the communist rebels.
In a media briefing last May, Northern Luzon Command chief Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Salamat said JCP Kapanatagan is designed to enhance the “interoperability” of state forces in “dismantling of guerilla fronts” and “disconnect” rebel support from the urban areas.
Specifically targeting clergies that advocate people’s rights and are critical to the government, military in plainclothes are now on the prowl for clerics working with activist organizations in Ilocos.
All of the incidents recorded involved clergies from three denominations: the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI), United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and United Methodist Church (UMC), all of whom experienced vilification and filing of trumped-up charges against their members. Heads of the different denominations and the individuals involved confirmed the information provided by IHRA.
Eyeing the ecumenical community
The most recent is the visit of soldiers to UMC Calaoan in Candon City on July 17, who asked for Rev. Joel Bengbeng, District Superintendent of the Methodist’s South District churches. Since he was not around during that time, the men requested the resident pastor to inform him that they would like to speak before the Clergy Assembly.
On the same day, two men also went to UMC San Pedro, Sta. Cruz and looked for Rev. Brian Ascuit. He was not there so the visitors, who introduced themselves as army men, talked to his mother-in-law instead. They asked her where to find the cleric and his activities.
Last April and June, the military also went to visit Bengbeng at his church assignment and home. Ascuit, also informed him that soldiers went to see him in his old assignment in Tagudin and San Pedro in the past months.
“They insisted on seeing me regularly at home but I said if they want to engage with the church then they should visit me in my office or my church. I think they are after specific churches like the UCCP and the IFI,” Bengbeng told Nordis.
He shared that Bishop Randy Espiritu relayed to him that army personnel also went to his church, the Iglesia Filipina Sagrada Aglipayana in Salcedo. The bishop said that the military sought an audience with him thinking that he was an IFI priest and left after he explained that his church belongs to a different denomination.
Rev. Marcelino Mariano, assigned pastor to the UCCPBalaoan and spokesperson of Ilocos Network for the Environment (Defend Ilocos) also got a visit on April 1. The men introduced themselves as Sgt. Michael Fajardo and Cpl. Bengie Mangande and said that they are with the intelligence unit of the army. Like the ones visited Lacanaria, the two who went to said they were sent by Dumrique and was there for a “courtesy call.” Before this, Mariano said that men, believed to be soldiers, already came asking if he conducts midweek service.
The following Sunday, Fajardo returned together with Domrique and Pfc. Joemar Jasmin to coordinate for their “community engagement program.” Since then, they regularly drop by church to check on his activities and ask how they can participate.
Bengbeng and Mariano are officers of the Ilocos Sur Ecumenical Movement. The group is vocal against military encampments in communities and actively participates in fact-finding missions in militarized communities in Ilocos Sur. The most recent undertaking where they became very visible is the campaign against the dam project in Salcedo that the government abandoned because of widespread protest.
Monitoring rights advocates
On March 18 at about 9:00 in the morning, three men who introduced themselves as members of the military dropped by the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) church in Sto. Domingo, Ilocos Sur. They said their new commanding officer (CO) sent them to pay courtesy to Rev.Fr. Ferdinand Lacanaria. Since then, men from the army unit based in Narvacan, Ilocos Sur regularly drop by the church and attend Sunday mass.
Lacanaria, who is the vice-chairperson of IHRA, told Nordis that the sudden visit of soldiers is not surprising: “It was not the first time and officials in my village and a colleague assigned in Narvacan already informed me that there were men, they think from the military, asking about my whereabouts.”
He recalled that the first few visits, the soldiers talked about the possibility of participating in church activities. They would also drop by and bring snacks and lunch then leave after eating.
“Their CO eventually came and introduced himself as Capt. Rogelio Domrique, Jr. He asked if I can introduce him to Ilocos Human Rights Alliance (IHRA) officials,” the priest narrated.
According to him, the captain wants him to act as the “bridge” for them to talk to Mary Gabayan, secretary-general of IHRA. Also, just recently inquired as to where and how they can talk to Bishop Jed Manzano of the Diocese of La Union, Ilocos Sur, and Abra. The bishop is the chair the Regional Ecumenical Council in the Cordillera and part of the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform Northern Luzon.
Domrique also sent men to talk to Rev. Jay Pee Bulusan, chairperson of IHRA, on June 16 at UCCP Namoroc in Vintar, Ilocos Norte.
The soldiers said that their official sent them to coordinate for their Civil-Military Operations of the 24th and 81st Infantry Battalions in the area. They further explained that the church visits are part of “whole of the nation approach” of the government to defeat the communist rebels.
Bulusan said that he inquired if they are coordinating with other churches in the area and they answered affirmatively.
“I told them that before coming to me, they should have first asked our Conference Minister (CM) and the community. CM informed me that they went to see him at that he criticized them for not informing him before they came to my church,” he said.
According to him, the men never came back after the meeting with their conference chief. He also went around the community and learned from the other churches and village officials that the military did not visit or informed them of such activity.
“There was also an instance that they came looking for me at the UCCP North Luzon-Amburayan Conference (NLAC) office but I was not there. They talked to the pastor in charge of the church instead,” said Rev. June Paplonot, conference minister of.
According to him, besides Mariano, the military also Rev. Salvador Quiyo assigned at UCCP Basig in Sudipen, La Union. The soldiers went to attend the mass in their battle gear and then talked to the pastor afterward.
In a statement, UCCP- NLAC expressed alarm of the incident, noting “developments in the wider ecumenical community point to a pattern that includes surveillances, harassments, and public ostracism by the state’s military and police agencies.”
NLAC disclosed that these events caused “a lot of apprehensions and spiritual distress” to their members and workers.
“Military and police personnel are always welcome in our churches and our congregational worship but they need ‘to remove their sandals’ and drop off their martial cloaks and national security agenda whenever they approach our houses of worship,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, Bishop Manzano, through a phone call, also confirmed that men, believed to be from the military, came to his office twice but he was out of town on official business.
The bishop pointed out that the visits can be a sign of recognition of their relevance to society. However, since their church is a target of vilification by the military, especially in Mindanao, these incidents are now a cause for concern.
He underscored that while they welcome people in their churches, their places of worship must be spared from whatever form of military operations, be it covert or overt.
Targeted for a reason
“The visits may seem like a simple social call but they are targeted for regular visitations for a reason,” explained IHRA’s Gabayan.
She added that the occasional visits are “subtle actions intended to evoke discomfort and fear, and to dissuade the individuals they visit from continuing their advocacy.”
“The fact remains that the IFI, the UCCP and some members of the UMC are accused by the government of harboring and working with communist rebels. Their members have experienced and continue to receive threats and harassment, with some becoming victims of political killings,” said Gabayan.
She cited the case of Rev. Francisco Bunoan of the UCCP-Northern Luzon Jurisdiction Office whom the military accused of being a member of the New People’s Army (NPA).
“He was arrested for trumped-up charges twice, the court dismissed both cases. Now he is again facing murder and multi-attempted murder charges filed by the 81st IB,” she said.
Gabayan added that before Bunoan, other UCCP members suffered attacks from suspected state agents. Jose Manegdeg, a UCCP lay worker and member of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines was gunned down on November 2005. Also, Rev. Billy Austin survived an assassination attempt during his term as Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Ilocos chair in the same year.
More than a decade ago, police and military arrested and tortured church workers from the UCCP and IFI for the killing of Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) chief Conrado Balweg. The NPA owned the attack, claiming revolutionary justice for alleged victims of the atrocities of Balweg and the CPLA. Among those accused were Bunoan, and couples Rev.Fr. Noel, and now Bishop Emelyn Dacuycoy of the IFI. The court dismissed the case for lack of evidence. # nordis.net