Parish priests throughout this predominantly Catholic country read from their pulpits today a pastoral letter attacking the government for allegedly interfering with the church's work of evangelization. The pastoral letter was issued a week ago by 66 of 74 of the country's Catholic bishops at their semi-annual convocation.
Although temperate in language, the bishop's joint pastoral letter is, in tone, the strongest church statement yet against policies of the four-year old martial law regime. Most of the bishops who signed the document normally support the government.
The statement was not mentioned in two of the three major dailies, which are government controlled. There has not been any other sign of a government reaction to the bishops' challenge.
The heart of the bishops' complaint against the government is outlined in one clause of this letter, which states: "It is most unfortunate that in may cases . . . evangelizing work has been misunderstood by the government) and led to the arrests of priests, religious and lay workers, and even the deportation of foreign missionaries."
The angry mood of the bishops was prompted by the rash of arrests, deportations, and government closures of some church publications and radio stations last November and December for alleged subversion. This mood was further inflamed by the presentation at the convocation of a military list drawn up last December charging 155 clergy and church lay workers with "rebellion and inciting to sedition." Four of the bishops attending the convacation were on the military's list. To date only the first man on the list, a Filipino priest, has been arrested. Two other priests arrested in 1974 are still in jail.
Today's pastoral letter is significant because it indicates that the generally conservative bishops can be led to criticize the equally conservative government if they fell directly threatened.
One highly conservative bishop, whose radio station was closed and many of his people arrested, is still so angry that he has been writing letters to cardinals all over the world complaining about government repression of the church.
Normally, only 17 of the country's total of 82 bishops are considered liberal. Therefore, a progressive and challenging statement signed by a total of 66 bishops is a signal victory for the liberal minority. Another victory for the liberals was the reelection of one of their number, Bishop Julio Labayen, to the important post of head of all church supported social action programs despite the fact that he is number 28 on the military's list of church persons to be arrested. The government has often criticized church social action programs most of which involve community organization building as being subversive.
The number 2 man on the arrest list is Francisco Claver, bishop of Bukidnon Province in the southern Philippines. Claver, a Jesuit in his mid-40s, is a Filipino of mountain tribal heritage who holds a Phd. in anthropology from the University of Colorado. He is generally considered to be the most outspoken of the bishops, and has recently been prohibited by the government from attending church meetings abroad. His radio station and provincial newsletter were closed by the military late last year. Claver has been singled out by the government as a leader of what is called the "Christian left."
In general usage, the term "Christian left" is used by the government and military to refer to church-connected persons who are outspokenly against martial law policies but who have not joined the Communist-led armed insurrection against the government.
Some of the 155 persons charged with "rebellion and inciting to sedition" are outspoken, others less on. The government's definition states that persons incite to sedition if they "utter, write, publish or circulate [anything which will] . . . tend to stir up the people against the lawful authorities or to disturb the peace of the community and the safety and order of the government." The bishops obviously disregarded this implied threat in reading their pastoral letter.
In addition to attacking the government for interfering with the work of evangelization, which the bishops define as the teaching of salvation, liberation, and development, the pastoral letter also attacks the government for its attitude toward the 2 million non-Christians and non-Moslems in the country's hill tribes.
"The actual implementation of its programs destroy rather than preserve the cultures of the people . . . and men and women working for their rights and development of cultural minorities "have been harassed, intimidated, arrested and jailed. This we strongly deplore and condemn," the letter says.
The government frequently runs into conflict with the cultural minorities and their church-related supporters when government development projects displace hill tribes from their traditional lands. In recent months some 105 tribesmen and church workers have been arrested for allegedly resisting government programs.