Filipino Church Leaders Support Chief Justice

A UMNS Report


By Elliott Wright*

Jan. 23, 2009


United Methodist and other church leaders in the Philippines are strongly supporting the country's chief justice in the wake of reports that efforts to impeach him are under way, possibly for upholding human rights laws.


Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, a United Methodist lay preacher, may or may not be threatened with removal. The press in the Philippines has been abuzz with reports that the justice is or is not the target of impeachment proceedings. His backers are not taking any chances and are speaking out.


The three-member College of Bishops of The United Methodist Church in the Philippines issued a manifesto of support for the chief justice, as did the president of the country's National Council of Churches.


"Let us as one Christian family gather, pray and join activities in solidarity with Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno," said United Methodist Bishop Lito Cabacungan Tangonan of Manila, in a pastoral letter to church members.


Opposition to the chief justice is hardly a secret in the Philippines. He has been a strong force for justice in dealing with charges that the military is responsible for the "extrajudicial killings" of people who challenge the policies of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.


Rumors of impeachment proceedings seem to rest in the justice's opposition to a charter change that would allow the current president to become prime minister of the country, a move opposed by human rights supporters.


Prospero Nograles, speaker of the House of Representatives, has denied any moves to remove the chief justice. Other reports say that Nograles is the architect of the impeachment plan.


Church member since birth

Puno has been a member of The United Methodist Church since birth. His family has close ties with the Puno United Methodist Church in Manila, where he is chairman of the administrative committee and a lay preacher.


He was named chief justice in 2006 by Macapagal-Arroyo and has become noted for his strong adherence to the fair application of the rule of law. In 2007, he made international headlines by launching the National Summit on the Extrajudicial Killings and Forced Disappearances in response to years of murders and disappearances of government opponents.


Actions by the chief justice made it possible for families of victims of alleged extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances to open military records to discover facts that may have been withheld.


The Rev. Rex RB Reyes Jr., top executive of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, said Puno has "demonstrated integrity and dedication to the rule of law, especially in the defense of human rights. He is one of the few trustworthy civil servants, a rare breed in these difficult times."


Human rights concerns

While the chief justice is reported to have opponents on the Supreme Court bench, he has been backed, since the impeachment reports surfaced, by a wide range of associations representing judges and lawyers in the Philippines and other parts of Asia.


The debate around Puno comes at a time of renewed international concern and activism about the human rights situation in the Philippines. The inauguration of President Barack Obama in the United States triggered renewed efforts to limit U.S. military aid to the Philippines unless human rights benchmarks are achieved.


The Ecumenical Advocacy Network on the Philippines issued an appeal Jan. 22 that urges religious organizations to renew pressure on the United States and insist that conditions included in military spending bills of 2008 be met by the Macapagal-Arroyo government. The conditions apply to only $2 million of a $30 million appropriation.


The three conditions, which the advocacy group says have not been met, stipulate the implementation of provisions on human rights included in a United Nations report, the prosecution of those in the military and others responsible for extrajudicial killings, and an end to the vilification of civil organizations by the Philippine military.


*Wright is the information officer of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.