Church, rights groups push for bishop’s release

CHURCH leaders from other denominations and a human rights group joined the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) clergy, also known as Aglipayan Church, in condemning the arrest and detention of an IFI bishop by authorities in Ozamiz City last week.

IFI Bishop Carlos Morales was detained along with Rommel Salinas, who was identified as a National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) consultant and a top commander of the New People’s Army (NPA), by police and military in Gango village, Ozamiz last Friday, May 12, for allegedly possessing illegal firearms and a grenade.

The Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), in a statement, called the apprehension of Morales as “appalling” and “a violation of human rights.” Morales is the newly installed bishop of the diocese of Ozamiz.

The CCA is an ecumenical organization representing 15 national councils and over 100 churches in the Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the region.

Reports said Salinas should be protected under the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (Jasig) as a member of the NDF peace negotiating panel.

According to Morales, he was travelling with his wife Maria Teofilina and driver Isadome Dalid when they picked up Salinas who was hitching a ride.

The bishop said the van they were riding was flagged down by police officers and military personnel manning a checkpoint in Gango.

Morales’ wife and Dalid were freed but he and Salinas were put behind bars and are now facing charges of illegal possession of firearms and ammunitions.

Dr. Mathews George Chunakara, general secretary of the CCA, said “it is unfortunate that [Morales] has been accorded with such maltreatment. Despite introducing himself as a bishop, he was illegally arrested, handcuffed and detained in a crowded holding cell in the city’s police station.”

IFI Bishop Antonio Ablon, said the accusation against Morales was baseless, as he pointed out that as a religious leader, the bishop has an obligation to provide protection or sanctuary to any person who is in distress or politically persecuted.

In a separate statement, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) called for the immediate and unconditional release of Morales.

The group also condemned the treatment of the military and the Ozamiz police who detained them (Morales and Salinas) along with common offenders.

NCCP, said, the “fabricated charges are intended to keep them under the government’s control and scrutiny.”

“These (charges) also manifest the continuous fascist strategy of the state forces against church leaders who are actively advocating for the advancement and protection of the rights of the oppressed and marginalized sectors in the country,” said Dr. Rommel Linatoc, program secretary of NCCP’s Program Unit on Christian Unity and Ecumenical Relations.

The United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) said Morales is a member of the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform and Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum and that his arrest “is not so surprising.”

“In these critical times where good is often seen as bad and evil is seen as good, someone who advocates for peace based on justice through prophetic witness will surely be harassed, intimidated and arrested,” said Bishop Elorde Sambat, of the UCCP’s North Luzon Jurisdictional Area.

Meanwhile, the human rights group Karapatan said Salinas is the fourth NDFP consultant arrested after the Duterte administration declared an all-out war on February 3, despite statements of the government on the reaffirmation of its adherence to the Jasig and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL).

“The [Jasig] explicitly states that consultants to the peace process should be immune from illegal arrest and detention, among other forms of violations. The CARHRIHL also upholds the individual and collective right to liberty against unwarranted and unjustified arrest and detention,” said Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general.

With the upcoming fifth round of peace talks, Karapatan has called on the government to release all detained NDFP consultants, including Salinas and three others of his colleagues.

“While Duterte has announced his decision to release at least [14] political prisoners at the [New Bilibid Prison], this should be made real before the fifth round of the GRP-NDFP peace talks. We will continue to press for the release of all political prisoners. All of them deserve partial justice through immediate release from imprisonment,” Palabay said.
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