A CONTROVERSY marred the handover ceremony of the Balangiga bells on Saturday, December 15, after a Catholic priest claimed they “were earlier told to go out of the Balangiga plaza” by the Presidential Management Staff (PMS).
Fr. Edmel Raagas of the Diocese of Borongan alleged that “priests, including the Borongan bishop and the Apostolic Nuncio, were initially told to go out of the Balangiga plaza, minutes before the President arrived.”
“When the Nuncio was informed by another bishop to leave, the Nuncio said it would be improper and disrespectful,” said Raagas in his Facebook post.
“The bishops and priests went back to their seats. Later, two priests, including myself, were instructed by PMS to transfer to the seats at the back ‘kasi alam niyo naman may issues ang Presidente sa inyo (because the President has some issues with you),’” added the priest.
According to Raagas, they refused to follow the alleged order, saying that “as shepherds we carry in our hearts the joys and pains of the flock that we represent in that program who waited 117 years for the return of those bells which are owned by the Church.”
“That was okay for us. We were so humble before the gift of the bells to be received. Nobody can distract us,” Raagas said.
The official Facebook page of the Diocese of Borongan shared the post of Raagas, but was took down later.
The page, however, posted a brief statement, echoing the same issue raised by Raagas.
“Priests, including the Borongan bishop [Crispin Varquez], the Archbishop of the Military Ordinariate of the United States, and the Apostolic Nuncio [Gabriele Giordano Caccia] were earlier told to go out of the Balangiga plaza. Duterte only wants Archbishop [Romulo] Valles to be in the area,” it said.
“There was even the suggestion to the priests present to remove their Roman collars so as not to offend the President. Also, chairs were placed in front of the priests to cover them,” said the diocese in a post at 5:04 p.m., Saturday, which went viral.
Valles, the archbishop of Davao and the president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), is a known friend of the President.
The Catholic Church has been at the center of the President’s tirades over its continued criticism on the administration’s “drug war” which claimed over 20,000 people as estimated by various rights groups.
Yet when Duterte arrived at the gymnasium for the handover ceremony at 4:57 p.m., the President was seen shaking the hands with the bishop, the apostolic nuncio and other church delegates before he went to the stage for the formal ceremony.
Duterte, however, skipped the Catholic mass after the ceremonial turnover.
Palace spokesperson Salvador Panelo, meanwhile, said that “the news report quoting a Balangiga priest that a member of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) asked some of the members of the Catholic clergy present in yesterday's turnover of the Balangiga bells to leave the event before the President's arrival is being probed.”
“I was present at the Balangiga turnover ceremonies before and after the President’s arrival at the venue but I did not see any occurrence as described nor hear any complaint coming from the Apostolic Nuncio and the CBCP president whom I talked to just before the President arrived at the ceremonial place,” Panelo said.
According to the Palace official, it is “absolutely out of the President's character nor his style to cause mortifications during an event.”
“If it indeed happened, then the same is not authorized and such unethical conduct cannot be sanctioned by PRRD (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte). It could have been done by someone who represented himself or herself as a staff from the PMS,” Panelo said in a statement.
The United States of America Government returned the Balanganiga bells to the town after they were seized as war trophies during the Philippine-American war in 1901. (SunStar Philippines)