By Mark Saludes
The leader of Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Philippine Independent Church), or IFI, has accused security forces of conducting illegal surveillance of priests, and even issuing death threats against them.
“We believe these death threats, and harassment are acts that only the state has the power and authority to commit,” the church’s supreme bishop, Rhee Timbang told ucanews.com in an interview on July 12.
The accusation follows claims by IFI priests, Randy Manicap and Arvin Mangrubang, from the northern region of Ilocos, that they have been receiving threatening calls and text messages since 2017.
The two are active in their opposition to mining activities in their respective parishes and are vocal critics of alleged human rights abuses by government officials.
The two priests are the conveners of the group People’s Solidarity against Large-Scale Mining in the province of Ilocos Norte.
Parish workers have also reported “suspicious-looking men” asking for the whereabouts of the priests.
“Only the government has the motive to commit this harassment,” said Father Manicap.
“They want to silence us because we are amplifying the cry of the poor against social injustices,” added the priest.
Father Mangrubang said he already fears for his life, especially after the assassinations of three Catholic priests in recent months.
“These are not just assaults against us the clergy, but a deliberate attack against faith,” said Father Mangrubang.
“We fear our parishioners might get hurt trying protecting us from this nonsensical violence,” he told ucanews.com.
A military spokesman dismissed the claims saying there was “no reason” for the government to mount a surveillance operation against the priests.
“There is no way that our soldiers would do that. It is our duty to protect civilians especially priests, not threaten them,” said Lt. Col. Isagani Nato of the Northern Luzon Command.
“We are a professional military organization that adheres to due process and uphold the protection of human rights,” said Nato.
He urged the priests to coordinate with the military “so that we can help them find the perpetrators behind these death threats and unlawful acts.”
Bishop Timbang, however, said it is not the first time that IFI received reports of harassment, even attacks on its clergy for “standing with and in advocating for the legitimate causes of our people.”
One was the killing of Bishop Alberto Ramento, who was stabbed to death inside his residence in the city of Tarlac on Oct. 3, 2006.
Bishop Ramento, a former IFI supreme bishop, had been active in various social issues and was chairman of the Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum and the Promotion of Church People’s Response.
“These acts violate the basic human rights of our ordained leaders and of the people,” said Bishop Timbang, adding that the threats “constitute acts of persecution.”
“It is a deliberate attempt to silence our clergy and lay people who are involved in empowering communities,” added the prelate.
The IFI, founded in 1902 amid intense nationalism that accompanied the war for independence from Spain, has at least 30 dioceses in the Philippines and one in the United States with a total membership estimated at 1.5 million.