Philippine church leaders face death for advocating change

Photo: Eliezer M. Pascua
Bishop Eliezer M. Pascua, general secretary of the United Church of Christ in Philippines. Photo by Danny Bolin

SAN JOSE, June 27, 2008 — Bishop Eliezer M. Pascua leads a church that lives at the intersection of uncertainty and faith.

Pascua, general secretary of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), has seen 26 pastors and lay leaders killed over the past five years for the stands they have taken.

Church leaders who continue to speak out for the nation’s marginalized do so not knowing how the military and government might react. Imprisonment or death could very well be the result.

Nevertheless, the UCCP holds fast to its conviction that faithfulness requires the church to be advocates for people who are disenfranchised. “As one of the largest mainline denominations, we believe an integral part of our mission and ministry is to get involved in the struggles and hopes of the people,” said Pascua, an ecumenical delegate to the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “The whole UCCP carries this conviction.”

Pastors and lay leaders frequently address issues related to poverty, landlessness and corruption, Pascua said. The denomination also has issued official statements condemning military abuses and human rights violations.

The UCCP encounters anger in part because the government fails to differentiate between the UCCP’s peaceful advocacy for change and guerilla groups who pursue violence, Pascua observed. He noted that other Protestant groups, particularly those that have sprung up in recent years, are not openly advocating for oppressed people.

“This is one of the reasons why we are easily mistaken by the government, the military or police as leftists, communists and terrorists,” Pascua said.

In addition to the killings, several church leaders have been abducted and others have been jailed. One pastor has been in prison for a year and a trial date is yet to be set.

The violence against church leaders has taken its toll in the life of the church, Pascua said. “A number of congregations have virtually stopped their regular worship services,” he explained. “So many have become afraid, asking, ‘Why are our pastors being killed? Why are so many [who are] advocating for change being killed?’”

Pascua said such fear is understandable. He offers both comfort and encouragement to his people. “On the one hand, we feel the heaviness of heart because of what has been going on, the victimization that we have been suffering from,” he said.

Nevertheless, the church cannot be mired in distress, Pascua said. “It’s a matter of transcending that feeling because we know for a fact that this is what is being capitalized on by the government and the military.”

The General Assembly approved a commissioner’s resolution on Friday (June 27) regarding human rights violations in the Philippines. It urges Presbyterians to become aware of the situation in the Philippines, participate in partnerships and immersion experiences, aid those who suffer from the violence and advocate for the human rights of the Filipino people. It asks that the U.S. Congress condition military aid to the Philippines on improvements in Philippine military’s human rights record. It also directs the stated clerk of the General Assembly to write a letter to the president of the Philippines asking her to use her authority to stop human rights abuses by the military.

Pascua said such statements are helpful to the UCCP’s cause. “These are official manifestations that give credit to what we have been advocating and fighting for,” he said. “The UCCP is not seen as just a small denomination but because of these international connections [the government] realizes we have clout and influence.”

International pressure has brought some human rights improvements to the Philippines over the past two years, he said. Pascua himself travels internationally talking about the situation in the Philippines. Last year, with the help of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders, he spoke to members of the U. S. Senate’s subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific affairs during Ecumenical Advocacy Days.

Pascua said faith in God sustains him and others in the UCCP. “God is with us,” he emphasized. “We are made more than conquerors.”