Bishop Brown Calls Visit to Philippines 'Illuminating'
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
July 30, 2009 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
As President Obama prepared to meet with Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a team of United Methodists stood in solidarity with a U.S. citizen who has accused her government of kidnapping and torture last May.
A meeting between Obama and Arroyo was scheduled for July 30, the same day Melissa Roxas, a Filipino American, was set to testify at a hearing in the Philippines on human rights violations.
A delegation from the United Methodist California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference escorted Roxas back to the Philippines on July 20 and was to be with her for the hearing. Members of the delegation were to escort her back to the U.S. July 31, in an effort to ensure her safety.
In advance of the White House meeting, it was reported the two presidents would discuss cooperation on a variety of issues including counterterrorism, climate change and the alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines. Arroyo was to be the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the Obama administration - her visit coming at a time when the Philippines and Indonesia have suffered deadly bombings and she has said peace and security top her agenda.
Many faith groups, however, urged Obama to address human rights violations with Arroyo.
United Methodist support
Roxas said she was illegally abducted and tortured while on a medical relief mission. In a sworn affidavit submitted to the Philippines Supreme Court, Roxas described being abducted at gunpoint by several heavily armed men, taken to what she believed is a military camp, held against her will, questioned without the presence of an attorney, beaten repeatedly, and asphyxiated using plastic bags, before being released. She has petitioned the Philippine courts for an investigation of her case and for protection for her and her family, some whom are still living in the Philippines.
Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr., San Francisco Area, who was on part of the trip with the California-Nevada delegation, said Roxas was grateful for the support she received from the United Methodist team. "She was very fearful she might be harmed if not killed if she returned on her own," he said.
The United Methodist Church has been actively involved in seeking justice and calling for an end to killings, abductions and torture of hundreds of people since Arroyo took office in 2001. Many of the victims have been human rights workers, clergy and journalists. In 2006, a United Methodist pastor was dragged from his home, beaten, and shot. His family has accused the Philippine military of the killing.
"It is our hope he (Obama) will forcefully call for an end to extrajudicial killings and abductions as a condition of continuing financial aid to the Philippines," said Mark Harrison, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. Harrison participated in a prayer vigil with other faith groups and human rights advocates outside the White House before the meeting.
"Concerned Filipino Americans, the National Association of Filipino American United Methodists in particular, are afraid that President Obama will be used to give political cover for the Philippine president's troubles back home," said Aquilino Pong Javier (left), director of communication for the association.
"We demand that President Obama insist that President Arroyo publicly go on record as commander in chief of the Philippine military to aggressively investigate and prosecute cases of extrajudicial killings and abductions perpetrated by the military, and end the filing of false charges against those in society that advocate for the poor and the marginalized," Javier said. "This will be an 'Obama change' in the right direction."
An organized advocacy campaign in 2008 resulted in the U.S. Congress allocating $30 million for military funding in the Philippines on the condition the government prosecute human rights violations and put an end to military harassment.
"The U.S. Department of State granted the funds, the Arroyo administration has yet to meet any of the conditions," Javier said.
The California-Nevada conference has sent three teams to the Philippines since 2007 to listen and record stories of victims and offer pastoral support. The conference has many pastors and lay persons who are from the Philippines, Brown said.
This was Brown's first trip to the Philippines since being appointed to the California-Nevada conference. He called the trip "illuminating" as the church in the U.S. looks for ways to support the church in the Philippines.
"Seventy percent of the population in the Philippines are poor and most are desperately poor," he said. "Wealth is concentrated in a few hands and there is major concern that the government is serving the interest of the wealthy few and transnational corporations."
Listen to Bishop Brown's statement (audio runs 1:40) here.
*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tennessee.