Catholics in Philippines want priest’s killers brought to justice

Paul Jeffrey

4 November 2016

“People often accuse us of being part of being reds. But … we will
continue to stand as prophets even though we are red-tagged and our
security is threatened. That’s part of following Christ,” a missionary
nun in Mindanao says.

KIDAPAWAN, Philippines – Justice is slow in the Philippines, but Father
Peter Geremia is running out of patience as he awaits justice for the
killers of a fellow priest.

Geremia is hoping that the country’s new president, Rodrigo Duterte, can
cut through the impunity and corruption that the priest says have
prevented bringing to justice the killers of Father Fausto Tentorio.

The Italian missionary was shot to death on Oct. 17, 2011, just outside
his parish office in the rural town of Arakan on the southern island of
Mindanao, where he had helped indigenous communities organize to resist
the theft of their lands by foreign mining companies, loggers, and large
agro-export plantations.

Geremia, who was born in Italy but became a U.S. citizen in 1971 after
living in the United States for more than a decade, is a member of the
Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, as were Tentorio and two
other priests assassinated in Mindanao.

One of them, Father Tullio Favali, was murdered in 1985 by
military-linked assassins who thought they were killing Geremia. Six men
were convicted of that killing and served lengthy prison terms.

But that’s not the case with Tentorio’s killers, who remain officially
unidentified despite multiple investigations and a Byzantine trail of
confessions and recantations by people with links to a paramilitary squad.

Geremia says the church got several key witnesses to Tentorio’s killing
into a witness protection program, but as the case has dragged on, the
witnesses have chafed at their lack of freedom.

“It’s been five years since the killing, and after a while the witnesses
and their families couldn’t stand it, it was like being in prison.
They’d had to abandon their homes and farms and we had to support their
families,” Geremia told Catholic News Service.

The priest, who met personally with the leader of one paramilitary group
linked to the killing in an unsuccessful attempt to get him to confess,
is hoping things will improve under Duterte, who took office June 30. As
part of the president’s pursuit of a peace deal with the National
Democratic Front, in September he ordered the Philippine army to
dismantle the paramilitary groups blamed for widespread repression in
indigenous communities.

“These groups are instruments of politicians and the military and serve
as security guards for the big plantations and mining operations. They
are often composed of indigenous people who’ve been manipulated by the
military and armed with high-powered weapons,” Geremia said.

“They have steadily taken over land and driven people out of their
homes, all in an effort to destroy the tribal communities. It’s
genocide,” he said.

Asked if he knows the identity of Tentorio’s killers, Geremia declined
to answer specifically, but said the country’s army was clearly involved.

“We cannot point fingers at individuals, because they have the right to
due process,” he said. “But the investigators know very well.”

“The initial information from the National Bureau of Investigation
mentions names, but they always refuse to admit the military was in
control of the area. Fausto could not have been killed without their
permission. When he was killed there were soldiers just a few meters
away. The killers felt safe to wait for Fausto in broad daylight with
the military all around.”

“And after the killing, they just got on a motorcycle and went away
without anyone asking them any questions,” he said.

Like many church workers who have sided with indigenous communities in
Mindanao, Geremia has endured years of harassment and threats. According
to Sister Maria Luz Mallo, the executive secretary of the Sisters
Association in Mindanao, Geremia’s commitment during 44 years of
pastoral work in the Philippines has brought him unique acceptance by
native communities.

“Father Peter may have been born in Italy, but the blood that flows
through his veins is Filipino,” she said.

Mallo, a member of the Missionaries of the Assumption, has provided
pastoral accompaniment to indigenous families – chased out of their
rural villages by paramilitary violence – who have sought refuge in a
Protestant church compound in Davao. She said church workers who side
with the indigenous are going to suffer.

“Sometimes we are followed, and people often accuse us of being part of
the NPA (communist New People’s Army), of being reds. But we are not
working against the government, we are just responding to the needs of
the people. And we will continue to stand as prophets even though we are
red-tagged and our security is threatened. That’s part of following
Christ,” she said.

The struggle of Mindanao’s indigenous people, commonly known as Lumads,
took a bloody turn April 1 when police opened fire on several thousand
demonstrators in Kidapawan, killing three and wounding dozens more.

The protesters were indigenous and nonindigenous farmers suffering from
a prolonged drought. They came to Kidapawan to pressure the provincial
government to release thousands of sacks of rice that the national
government had sent for their relief.

It wasn’t the first such incident. During a 1992 drought, Geremia and
several indigenous leaders were jailed for 28 days following a similar
protest. A drought struck again in 1998, but the provincial government
released the rice in response to farmers’ demands.

During this year’s protest, Geremia was trying to mediate between the
protesters and the government when shots rang out. As many of the
demonstrators took refuge in a nearby United Methodist Church compound,
Geremia stood at the entrance and forbade the police from entering.

In the wake of the melee, charges were filed against almost 100 of the
protesters and their supporters, who in turn filed countercharges
against the police and the North Cotabato provincial governor, Emmylou
Talino-Mendoza, who reportedly ordered the violence. Those cases are
pending in court, though Duterte reportedly has pressured to have them

Valentina Berdin of Arakan was one of those charged. The 78-year-old
indigenous woman was held for 11 days before her release pending trial.

“We planted rice, but because of El Nino, none came up. I went to
Kidapawan because the alternative was starving to death,” said Berdin,
who is charged with assaulting a police officer.

“I didn’t assault him. I turned myself over to him so I wouldn’t get
shot,” she said.

Geremia said those captured by the police were the ones who could not
run fast.

“How insulting it is to the police that the only ones they arrested were
the old women and the wounded,” he said.

Although the demonstrators were unable to obtain food with their
protest, Berdin said she has been offered one sack of rice and 4,000
pesos (about $82) every month if she agrees to drop the charges against
the governor.

Berdin says she that she and other indigenous people in Mindanao
appreciate the accompaniment of church leaders like Geremia.

“Father Peter has continued the work of Father Fausto in supporting the
Lumads against the mining companies and the plantations that are trying
to take our land. With Father Peter on our side, we will continue to
fight for our rights,” she said.