SACRAMENTO - It was an early morning phone call from the Philippines that woke Bishop Eliezer Pascua on the day he would address a World Day of Prayer service in Sacramento, California. The General Secretary of the United Church of Christ, Philippines listened as the caller told of the latest killing just hours earlier - another UCCP member gunned down in the streets. The murder of Renato Torrecampo Pacaide, 53, who was secretary general of a peasants' movement in Mindanao, brought to 835 the number of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines in five years. Of that number, more than 2 dozen church people and clergy have been killed, including a United Methodist pastor. The UCCP has been the hardest hit of the denominations.
Bishop Pascua, standing behind photos of some of the victims, spoke to the audience at Westminster Presbyterian church and in a voice vexed and sorrow-filled, quoted from the Psalms: "How long O Lord will you forget us? But we have trusted in you. We believe God is present."
This year's commemoration of World Day of Prayer on March 2 was a chance for the ecumenical community to spotlight an underreported story being played out on streets and in villages across the Philippines. Stories like that of Noli Capulong, a youth leader in the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, shot and killed last May as he headed to Bible study.
The Rev. Dennis Duhaylungsod of Filipino American United Church of Christ in Fremont, who worked with Capulong, told of the 20-year-old, killed on the day his mother sponsored a resolution to stop the killings in the Philippines. Holding up a black and white photo of Noli, Duhaylungsod said of the young man's apparent crime, "He attended a community meeting to help organize the village [to start] their own drug store."
For Deborah Lee of the PANA Institute, which studies leadership development in Pacific Asian and North American Religion, the day of prayer was all about faith, justice and human rights in the Philippines. "It is time to focus on human rights abuses [and] the killings of unarmed civilians who because of their political positions to stand for the poor, are being assassinated by their own military."
Lee's comments echoed those by United Methodists from the California-Nevada Conference (region) just back from a 10-day fact-finding mission to the Philippines. Laddie Perez-Galang from South Hayward UMC traveled with 16 others to three different regions of the country. Each group heard unique stories, but with brutal similarities. Stories of peasant laborers killed in rice fields, of torture and mass killings.
Perez-Galang said the team heard reports of church workers being identified with the New People's Army, the armed extension of the Communist Party of the Philippines, because they were helping secure the civil rights of farm workers. Reportedly, that connection was providing the military its license to kill. "The military government is taking advantage of uneducated people who do not know their rights," said Perez-Galang. "If they speak up they are arrested and killed. And if educated people inform them of their rights they are marked or labeled as either NPAs or communists."
The government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has conducted investigations into the killings, but according to the group Human Rights Watch, a climate of fear and a lack of cooperation by military authorities have made the probe ineffective at best. Victims and their families are afraid to come forward for fear of police reprisals.
The Rev. Michael Yoshii, a co-coordinator of the Cal-Nevada UMC team, said for some, neither fear nor distance could silence them. "Some people walked 6 hours to come and be interviewed by our group. They were under watch and their safety was not insured in many cases."
Bishop Beverly J. Shamana, of the California-Nevada Conference, was also on the fact-finding mission. She said what lies ahead for the group is the task of education and advocacy. "There is a lack of information, and international classicism is at work," said the Bishop. She noted that because the killings happened in the underdeveloped country of the Philippines, and not in some place in Europe, the stories of human rights atrocities were not receiving the attention they deserved. "Our representatives and many communities who care simply don't know yet. And so it is up to us to get the word out and get people educated, get them moving." Team members say they will be available to speak in churches throughout the conference.
The decision to host the World day of Prayer at Westminster Presbyterian was strategic. The Spanish-Mediterranean styled church in downtown Sacramento sits in the shadow of the California State Capitol.
Rev. Larry Emery, one of the event's co-ordinators, challenged the audience to make a difference. "We must hold our representatives in Washington accountable for the aid sent to our overseas allies in the name of American people, and to insure that aid is not used to oppose legitimate opposition to government, no matter their political public view, no matter their religious affiliation." Emery called for letter-writing campaigns to Senator Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate Foreign Affairs Sub Committee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. "Write and call your senators. Urge them to conduct a thorough and complete hearing into the human rights violations to determine whether the military is being used to threaten the civil rights and the very lives of the citizens of that nation."
Following the service Emery invited worshippers to carry flowers to the state capitol and leave them, along with the photos of those killed in the Philippines, on the capitol's steps.
Rev. Yoshii summed up the purpose of the day and the mission to the Philippines. "We are working out our mutual, collective salvation; understanding that our salvation is bound up in our support and solidarity of each other. None of us is free until we are all free."
Yoshii says members of the Fact-Finding Mission, Bishop Pascua, and a delegation of religious leaders from the Philippines will join organizers of the World Day of Prayer going to Washington D.C. March 12-14 for an international conference addressing the human rights abuses in the Philippines. "As a result of the grass roots clamor to raise consciousness of the extra-judicial killings, the offices of Rep. Tom Lantos, Chair of the International Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Boxer have agreed to meet with our delegation and are working on arrangements for special briefings to include public input."
World Day of Prayer is an ecumenical movement of informed prayer and prayerful action that was begun by Christian women in the 1920s and is now carried out in more than 170 countries and regions. It is held on the first Friday of March and welcomes all people.