AFTER 117 years, the three church bells which were turned into war booty by American forces have finally arrived in the Philippines on Tuesday, December 11.
“After years of waiting and uncertainty, this season of Advent, the season of waiting, is yielding us an early Christmas gift—the return of the Bells of Balangiga. God has shown great favor to our local Church and, by extension, to our country,” said Reverend Crispin Varquez, the bishop of Borongan.
The refurbished bells were airlifted from the American military base in Okinawa to the Villamor Air Base in Manila. It will be brought to Balangiga in Eastern Samar on December 15.
“During a time of war, the bells were taken from the Parish of St. Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr, Balangiga. They are being brought back during the season of hope and peace. This is only right because the bells are instruments of prayer and worship, sources of true hope and peace,” Varquez added.
In his pastoral statement, the bishop urged the parishioners that they “must not deny the tragic events of war that occasioned the misuse of the bells by the warring parties.”
“We must express sincere sorrow and repentance for the sins committed leading to the loss of lives and the destruction of homes and properties. But we must also forgive. We must seek reconciliation not because it is politically correct but because it is the demand of the Gospel,” he said.
About 50 American soldiers died when the villagers of Balangiga rose up against the Americans on the morning of September 28, 1901 upon the to signal of the church bells that brought a “single worst defeat” to the Americans during the Philippine-American War.
When the Americans retaliated, an estimated 2,000 people died through the “kill and burn” order US General Jacob Smith, reducing the Samar island into a “howling wilderness.” The event was called as “Balangiga Massacre.”
Thereafter, American forces took the three bells as war booty.
“Rightly used, the bells call us to pray and worship our God and Father through our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Prayer and worship express but also deepen our faith, hope and charity. We ring the bells before and during our highest act of prayer and worship—the Holy Eucharist. We ring the bells to signal community acts and to alarm the same community of impending emergencies. In a word, the bells bridge us to God and to one another. The bells are an integral part and parcel of our life in Christ in the community,” Varquez said.
American Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim said the return of the bells “demonstrates our determination to honor the past and the sacrifices made together by Filipinos and Americans.”
“Every day our relationship has further strengthened by our unbreakable alliance, robust economic partnership, and deep people-to-people ties,” added Kim as he maintained that the arrival of the bells “reflects the strong bonds and mutual respect” between the United States and the Philippines.
‘Not war booty’
Meanwhile, Fr. Euly Belizar, Jr. of the Diocese of Borongan maintained that the church bells “have nothing to do, at all, with war.”
“Indeed. The bells of Balangiga toll not simply for its people but also for every Filipino, nay, for every adult man, woman, young person and child who goes beyond the ups and downs, the ins and the outs of their return and rather asks the why behind the bells themselves,” he added.
“The government says that the bells belong to our national patrimony. The counterpart government that once kept them said that they were a war booty. The local Church, the Diocese of Borongan to which the Parish of St. Lawrence of Rome, Martyr, in Balangiga, Eastern Samar belongs, has long been saying, with unceasing insistence, that the bells are really instruments that call people to prayer and worship, of which the Eucharist is the highest form,” wrote the priest.
In his final analysis, Belizar said this last is the narrative that may have brought the bells back where they belong.
“It held sway even over the most zealous opposition to their return. For even if we grant that the bells were misused by Filipino revolutionaries to signal the attack on their foreign occupiers, this does not at all detract from the truth that the bells belong to the Church, a sign of ‘mankind’s union with God and the unity of all mankind’, not to any of the warring parties. Even the very principle of separation of Church and State already precludes holding them as war trophies,” Belizar said.
Earlier, parish priest Serafin Tybaco Jr. said “residents used the bells to signal the attack without the knowledge of priests.”
“These bells are meaningful for the residents because it symbolizes pride for the people of Balangiga. It signifies a lot, in the religious site it signifies the religiosity of the people of Balangiga and on the civil side, it signifies the bravery of the people here,” Tybaco told state-ran media.
Finding missed opportunities
Belizar also urged the faithful and the leaders “to find a few potentially missed opportunities” with the return of the bells.
“First off, could not the bells’ return be an urgent reminder and invitation to the nation (ours) and to the nations (the world) to go back to the worship and prayer addressed to the true God, and not to money, power, sex, fame, science and technology, or today’s overpowering obsessions—the internet and social media?” the priest asked.
“Second, if prayer and worship are what the bells are for, then our real heritage that they represent is the cultivation of our prayer life as individuals and as communities. At this point in their story, I am afraid the Balangiga bells could become museum artifacts or tourist attractions in the days ahead. They could add to the enhancement of the local economy or to the adulation of local or national heroes and personalities. But whether or not they lead more people to an ever deeper encounter and communication with the One who loves them most is a hundred-peso question. Call it impertinence but the truth is, there are things for which the bells do not toll,” he added
Ultimately, the Balangiga bells, therefore, belong in our hearts, Belizar said.
“They do not belong in museums or tourist shrines. There is an added advantage in taking on this point of view in that though the bells may not occupy all belfries or places of worship and prayer, they could be rightly in everyone’s hearts. There is where prayer and worship begins,” he said.
According to Belizar, the bells are inseparable from prayer and worship, prayer and worship are themselves inseparable from life.
“The bells, in a word, toll for our continual conversion...No one can say that the Balangiga bells are part of our heritage without renouncing not only corruption and the drug menace but also the drugs-and politics-related killings, the use of fake news as self-defense or self-promotion, fanning hatred by public cursing and shaming of enemies, generating political and character assassinations et cetera,” he said.
“Finally, it is not certain at all if the Balangiga bells will be rung the way they used to be before their captivity. They may prove too old or their tolling too dulled by disuse. Or the local Church may decide that their purposes are better served by simply seeing them as mute witnesses not only to history but especially to the eloquence of God’s love that needs to be adored in silence. And whether or not they will be heard again by our ears is not as important as whether or not they will be heard by our hearts,” Belizar added.
Gratitude and preparation
As the Diocese of Borongan and the parishioners of St. Lawrence the Martyr Parish in Balangiga thanked the people who have worked, lobbied, and prayed for the eventual return of the Balangiga Bells, they assured that the bells “will return the bells to their original religious purpose—and care and cherish them as a precious legacy of profound faith, heroism and courage of our forebears.”
The parish already restored the facade of the church while a new concrete platform has been prepared where they can show the bells to the public.
The platform is located at the burial ground of the villagers who were killed by the American soldiers during the attack in 1901.
“More than a hundred years, rising from the ashes of war and conflict, American soldiers took as war loot three bells from the belfry of the Balangiga parish church. For the next hundred years, these bells remained as mute witnesses to the sad consequences of war, seemingly exiled in a foreign land. With their return back to the belfry where they once hang - this sad episode in our nation’s history comes to a close,” said Philip Jude Acidre, a former seminarian and political leader of Tingog Sinirangan party list.
“Lost in a time of conflict, the return of the bells marks a time of renewed reconciliation between our two nations. I hope that these bells will continue to serve as a reminder not only of the ravages of war, but also of the truth that the true strength of a people lies not in their capability for war but more than that their capacity to unite and work together for good,” added Acidre whose family roots come from Balangiga.
According to Acidre, he is happy to be personally witnessing the historic event.
“While we will never forget the heroism of our forebears who valiantly fought to protect their cherished freedoms - we are even more inspired by their genuine love for country, and in our time this inspires us to remain fervent in our mission of community-building, of eradicating poverty and of making life better for our fellow Filipinos. May these bells continue to toll and call all of us to action and active service,” Acidre said.
“Our ancestors, Juan ‘Boyang’ Acidre and Callixto Acidre were among the Filipino soldiers who were in the Balangiga Encounter on September 28, 1901. Apoy Boyang died while Callixto was wounded during the incident. Both are well-remembered as heroes,” Acidre added.
A product of work and protest
Meanwhile, US Embassy in Manila spokesperson Molly Koscina said that the return of Balangiga bells is due to “decades worth of work and protest from the veterans, and the legal issues that came with it.”
“It was not due to any particular event or statement,” Koscina said in a statement Monday.
“People have worked for this for many, many years. It is time and we are very proud that it is happening. It has been 117 years. As time passes, wounds also heal. As US Defense Secretary James Mattis said, all wars must come to an end and it was just the right time. This is an opportunity to close a chapter, and we are looking forward to the future of our enduring and important alliance,” she added.
However, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the return of the bells also happened due to the “strong political will” of President Rodrigo Duterte.
“As we move forward in our history, we hope that the bells of Balangiga will become constant reminders of our people’s gallantry, heroism, and strong sense of national pride,” he said.
Earlier, Leyte-based historian Rolando Borrinaga, one of the ardent campaigners of the Balangiga bells, said that the return of the bells “is the last issue of contention pertaining to the Philippine-American War.”
Borrinaga added that “there could be closure over that aspect of Philippine history” if the bells will be returned.
“The original agreement during the campaign has always been to return the bells to the Church where they belonged. It's a private property,” said Borrinaga, who is a member of Balangiga Research Group along with British journalist Bob Couttie, and E. Jean Wall, daughter of American soldier Adolph Gamlin, who survived the Balangiga attack.
Borrinaga, who is also the secretary of the National Committee on Historical Research of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, said the timing on the return of the bells to the country is “supposedly a Christmas present.”
Prior to its return, the 11th Infantry Regiment of the American forces exhibited the two bells at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming while the third is displayed at the US military base in South Korea. (SunStar Philippines)