Last evening I returned from a week-long visit with our partners in the Philippines, a nation of 7,100 islands—7,101 at low tide. United Nations Human Rights Day, December 10, is already dawning there.
I was in the Philippines as one of four international delegates who responded to a request by the World Council of Churches (WCC), at the invitation of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), to visit the Philippines, which has been affected so dramatically by climate and ocean change. (While there, others represented the WCC at the UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico.)
We accepted this invitation to be a WCC Living Letters delegation. “Living letters” takes its name from 2 Corinthians 3:3, “and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” In the Living Letters program, Christians from around the world visit with pained Christians in particular times and places.
Pained Christians in the Philippines bring countless prayers and deep hope to this particular time and to this year’s Human Rights Day. Our United Church partners there make it clear that environmental rights and human rights are intimately interwoven. Victims of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, and abductions are often targeted because they have stood with farmers and fishers against corporate and government projects that would further denigrate the land and waters, and further threaten their livelihood and their future.
A church leader showed me a handbook for the Armed Forces of the Philippines that had mysteriously made its way to him and explains why people like him are targeted. The book declares that church and religious bodies have been infiltrated by communists because liberation theology promotes the idea that “everybody is equal in the eyes of God.”
As Human Rights Day dawns in the Philippines, so does the hope that killings, disappearances, torture, and abductions will cease. With the churches of the Philippines, my most immediate prayer is that the health workers (known as “‘the Morong 43”) will be released immediately. These workers serve poor people in remote areas, mostly as volunteers. Unlike so many other health workers who have left to work in richer countries, they have chosen to stay and serve their own people.
The Morong 43 have been detained since February following their arrest during a “first response to disasters” workshop sponsored by an alliance of health workers in Morong, Rizal province. Authorities have claimed the health workers possessed firearms and explosives, but the detainees insist the evidence against them was planted.
Even though President Benigno Aquino has said that their arrests suffer from “legal infirmities,” the workers remain in detention more than 10 months later.
Our hope for their release was strengthened last Friday when our Living Letters team met with Secretary of Justice Leila De Lima before and after standing with demonstrators in front of the Department of Justice. NCCP friends told me later that while they had met with the secretary twice before, this was the first time she made a firm commitment to see the workers released. The media took note with reports and pictures such as these.
De Lima has argued in favour of the detainees’ release, and she told our Living Letters delegation that she was issuing a second memorandum that day to restate her position in the hope that it will bring about a positive solution for the prisoners and their families.
So may our prayers on this Human Rights Day include her and President Aquino. We pray that the president will release the health workers and keep his electoral promises to put an end to impunity with regard to extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and abductions.
Regardless of what happens, we will remain firm in our partnership. Appreciation for the support of The United Church of Canada was voiced over and over again. As Mervin Toquero said in our final session together, “To say that The United Church of Canada is our most enduring partner is an understatement…. This enduring support has enabled us to continue in our support to the people for a better life and wouldn’t have been possible without you…. We treasure your solidarity and accompaniment. You have not abandoned us, and we are grateful for that.”
The souls of our Filipino neighbours are being pinched; their communities are suffering; their land and waters are crying out for release. We must continue to stand with them.
May all of our souls, communities, and creation be blessed today by a renewed commitment to human rights. May we demonstrate that we are letters of Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. What letters of Christ do you see being written today?