Fr. Christopher Ablon of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) is used to threats. Along highways on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, his name and that of his older brother, Bishop Antonio Ablon, can be found on streamers, placards and red paintings on walls.
“Communist!” “Terrorist!” “Acolytes of the New People’s Army!”
The messages call for their arrest or threaten death.
Aside from the brothers and fellow clergy, farmers and indigenous leaders and organizations feature in the widespread vilification campaign that also includes the distribution of pamphlets.
These groups are partners of the indigenous church born in the struggle against the country’s Spanish colonizers. The denomination, also known as the Philippine Independent Church, split with the Catholic Church early last century amid disquiet over abuses by some Spanish clergy.
Mindanao’s threatened indigenous leaders, including students battling for their right to safe schools and communities, see the Philippine capital, Manila, as a sanctuary where they can recover from trauma.
But on January 31, Ablon, the founder and administrator of the IFI’s Lumad Accompaniment Program, which sends clergy and lay members in pink vests to live with vulnerable indigenous farmers during harvest time, found hunters staking out the IFI’s national Cathedral on Taft Avenue, Manila.
The following day, Feb. 1, IFI Iloilo-based priest, Fr. Marco Sulayao, reported that cops and soldiers tracked him and four other priests during a Jan. 30 trip from their parish to Bacolod and San Carlos cities in Negros Occidental, the island across the Guimaras Strait.
While the first two sightings, on the fast-craft and in a Bacolod streetside eatery, could have been coincidence, there was no doubt about the surveillance when the priests arrived in San Carlos.
“I reached San Carlos City around 4 pm. I saw seven uniformed policemen taking pictures of me as I stepped off the bus. I was taken aback and quite surprised. They suddenly left without a word,” said the priest.
Salayao was tracked by men in uniform.
Ablon’s stalkers were in civilian clothes, almost always a sign of greater danger.
Ablon tried to confirm the Cathedral stakeout by playing a cat-and-mouse game, trying to approach the men, who promptly fled.
But on the way to dinner with companions, they saw the same two men following them on a motorcycle. They shook off their tails by taking evasive tactics on Manila’s main street.
“Riding in tandem” shootouts have become vogue under President Rodrigo Duterte’s government.
Outside of official police operations against suspected drug addicts and pushers, men on motorcycles have killed persons on the government’s list of personalities linked to drugs.
Activists have also fallen to motorcycle-riding killer teams. The killer of National Democratic Front peace panel consultant Felix Randy Malayao Jr., fled on a motorcycle driven by a second man seconds after the January 30 early morning attack on a commuter bus.
Aside from their clerical posts in the IFI, Ablon and Salayao had another thing in common: star turns in vilification operations.
In a phone interview, Salayao said his name and face appeared in posters around Iloilo a day after the December 10 human rights protest last year.
“Kampon ng CPP-NPA”, said the posters, which accused a mix of known underground rebel officers and legal personalities of duping citizens to fight the government.
A similar poster had gone the rounds of southern Negros Occidental in the third quarter of 2018.
A few months after, in November, one of the persons identified as “communist”, human rights lawyer Benjamin Ramos, was gunned down by motorcycle-riding men as he took a break from assisting a client.
While Duterte has verbally attacked bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, the brunt of physical assaults have been felt by the IFI and their grassroots colleagues, including Catholic religious in the inter-faith Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP)
The IFI and the RMP operate in underserved countryside areas where farmers and indigenous peoples are battling encroachment by plantation and mine developers.
A failed government attempt to seek proscription as terrorists of more than 600 persons included many high-profile Lumad and farmer leaders, many of them partners of the besieged religious groups. The slain Malayao was also on that list.
Following a series of legal setbacks, the government trimmed the proscription targets to eight. But the attacks have continued and the House of Representatives, controlled by Duterte allies, is set to pass a draconian anti-terror measure that would allow authorities to indefinitely hold activists with little court oversight.
Duterte has railed several times against the Lumad opposition to plantations. He has threatened to bomb their schools for raising dissident youth.
Some 80 Lumad community leaders have been killed under his rule, according to Karapatan, a human rights watchdog. It places the murders of farmers at more than 140 for the same period.
“With the relentless attack against the Church and its shepherds, I cannot but feel threatened and enraged by the audacity of state forces who have openly targeted civilians -- peace and justice advocates -- in their so called anti-insurgency war,” said Salayao.
“I can only point out squarely the police and military under the command of President Duterte responsible for any harm afflicted. No other suspects will continue to attack the Church and its people under this tyrannical rule,” he added.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.