More than a tale of two bishops

The religious in one of Asia’s predominantly Christian countries, the Philippines, may be among the most persecuted in the world.

By Raymund B. Villanueva

The moment may have been the most profound display of sadness that Filipino Roman Catholic Bishop Gerardo Alminaza had shown in public yet. At a peace forum in Manila last April, the usually cheerful prelate’s voice broke mid-speech. It took him several seconds to regain his composure, but he was still teary-eyed as he said, “I recently experienced a barrage of red-tagging, after I put out a Lenten statement with Pilgrims for Peace.”

Alminaza is known for his sermons and statements that show his iron-clad resolve to bring peace to his beleaguered flock in Negros Island in central Philippines. But being red-tagged in the Philippines can be deadly. 

In the largely Catholic Philippines, a number of clergy, alongside other rights defenders, are being “red-tagged,” or branded by security forces as communist operatives or sympathizers, simply for speaking out against human rights abuses. (Photo: Shutterstock / Al.geba)

The practice is defined as a malicious blacklisting of individuals or organizations as communists or terrorists, or both. The Philippine government has admitted on various occasions that it approves of red-tagging despite calls from local and international rights advocates for it to be stopped. In his speech before the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva in October 2022, current justice secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said, “It’s par for the course.”

“If you can dish it out, you should be able to take it,” Remulla told the 136th session of the Council, which questioned the Philippine government about red-tagging. “That, for me, is probably the essence of democracy. Are we not allowed to criticize our critics too? Is it a one-way street?” 

Observers and rights advocates, however, have pointed out that red-tagging is far from mere “criticism.” Individuals who are red-tagged are often subsequently charged with trumped-up allegations under the country’s hazy anti-terrorism law and are left to languish in prisons that are among the most crowded and inhumane in the world. And those are the somewhat lucky ones. There have been hundreds more red-tagged victims who have been summarily killed through the years, and many of them were hardly political dissenters and government critics. Aside from rights advocates, red-tagged victims have included environmentalists, lawyers, journalists, doctors, farmers, and indigenous peoples, among others. 

In a country that is mainly Christian — with some 80 percent of the 117 million Filipinos identifying as Roman Catholic and another 10 percent as Protestant — church workers, priests, pastors, ministers and, yes, bishops, have also been red-tagged. Like many red-tagged victims, several of them have ended up dead.

Not a solely Philippine phenomenon

The practice is neither new nor confined to the Philippines. Across the world, other governments conducting whole-of-nation counter-insurgency operations do red-tagging. Newly canonized St. Oscar Romero of El Salvador is probably the most prominent victim of such operations that include religious targets. 

Red-tagging, though, has become nearly synonymous with the Philippines in the last several years, and especially during the recently ended Duterte administration. And while the year-old administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has sought to have a gentler image than its predecessor, the picture on the ground has been less than reassuring.

Alminaza, for example, is among the more recent red-tagging victims. It all began for him last February via a television show, where his calls for peace and justice were also described as “diabolical and demonic” by hosts Lorraine Badoy-Partosa and Jeffrey Celis. Badoy-Partosa, a former Duterte presidential communications undersecretary, and Celis, alleged drug personality turned self-styled whistleblower against former comrades in the underground Left, have red-tagged many others, and are widely believed to be acting in behalf of the government’s counter-insurgency programs in their red-tagging spree.

Alminaza seems to have wound up on the red-tagged victims list because of his strong human rights stance in Negros. In 2019, he ordered all the church bells in his diocese to ring every night at six o’clock to call for a stop to the rising number of killings on the island — reminiscent of the situation in Negros during the dictatorship of the late Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the incumbent president’s father. 

Negros Island is the country’s sugar central. Its vast plantations are owned by very few landlords who pay their hundreds of thousands of farmhands starvation wages. The landlords are also the island’s politicians. Those who call for better living conditions and social justice in Negros are targeted for killing by the military, police, the landlords’ private armies, and paramilitary forces. 

Today, under the Marcos Jr. administration, Negrenses, as the people of Negros Island are called, say that farmers, journalists, lawyers, rights defenders, land rights activists, and even politicians are being killed with horrendous regularity, several in massacre-style, among them a provincial governor and nine of his constituents earlier this year.

At the peace forum, Alminaza described the situation in Negros this way: “I drew to mind the 14 Negros farmers who were executed in the (government’s anti-drug and anti-insurgency campaign) Oplan Sauron SEMPO’s (Synchronized Enhanced Management of Police Operations) one-time, big-time operations of 30 March 2019. Two of them, Edgardo and Ismael Avelino, were part of a mission station under the Basic Christian Communities of the Diocese of San Carlos in Negros Occidental. I imagined the fright and terror of families being awakened before or near the break of dawn and the unbelievably similar police reports of nanlaban (fought back)” killings. They had no due process, no legal counsel, no court hearings.”

“Red-tagging and terrorist-branding,” said the bishop, “can kill, have killed.”

Another bishop’s story

It is street wisdom also known to Bishop Antonio Ablon, who belongs to the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI). Now a political refugee in Europe, Ablon conducts his religious celebrations in grand, old churches. But he says that he misses his humble cathedral in his home island of Mindanao. 

In June 2018, Ablon joined a fact-finding mission in Dumingag, Zamboanga del Sur in the Philippine south after learning that a Philippine Army unit’s presence in the Indigenous Subanen community had resulted in harassments, intimidation, and the arrest of two residents. On the mission’s second day, the soldiers ordered the bishop and his team to leave as “they did not coordinate with the military.” A colonel later paid the bishop a “friendly visit,” warning him not to disrupt “(the military’s) special projects in the area.” Ablon was also told not to publicize the information the mission had gathered. 

The community suffered more harassment soon after. The soldiers went house to house and organized a “mass surrender ceremony” of alleged sympathizers of the New People’s Army (NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines). Bishop Ablon then facilitated another fact-finding mission, this time with the Commission on Human Rights, an independent state body, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Three months later, in September, IFI churches were defiled and painted with “IFI = NPA!” Throughout northern and western Mindanao, streamers and traffic barriers screamed allegations of the bishop’s connections with the underground NPA, along with other faith groups such as the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), and the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), among others.

Heeding the advice of several religious communities (including the Lutheran Church of Northern Germany, the Christian Catholic Church, and the global Anglican Communion), Ablon left the country to seek asylum in Europe in May 2019. Soon after, police officers barged into his cathedral, saying they were there to arrest him. When the deacon demanded to see an arrest warrant, the officers said it was merely a joke. 

Ablon has since been appointed the IFI’s bishop in Europe, probably a reaction to dimming hopes of his safe return to the Philippines. In July 2020, then President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law the anti-terrorism bill.  

‘Church of the Poor’

Ablon’s predicament, however, is not that known among Filipinos, many of whom are also unaware that IFI’s first ever woman bishop, Rt. Rev. Emelyn Gasco-Dacuycuy, and three of her clergy, had been accused of being New People’s Army recruiters. The entire United Church of Christ in the Philippines has been accused as well of being communist, as has the organization of mainline Protestants in the country, the National Council of Churches of the Philippines. 

Filipinos are more familiar with the state’s persecution of the religious belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. Under the rule of the late dictator Marcos, for instance, a group of so-called ‘Magnificent Seven Bishops’ had been accused of having links with the underground communists for speaking out against rights abuses. 

Ordained priests after the Second Vatican Council, the prelates’ attempts at building a “Church of the Poor” made them easy targets of allegations of having communist links. It was exactly the same crusade that made Alminaza, decades later, join his brother bishops in what the Church says is a persecution that Jesus has also suffered. Even the nuns of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, the mission arm of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), have not been spared, their bank accounts frozen on allegations of abetting terrorism. 

The spate of red-tagging against the clergy compelled Caloocan Bishop and CBCP president Pablo Virgilio David to denounce it in his 2022 Good Friday sermon, saying Jesus Christ was himself a victim of red-tagging, and was accused of being a subversive who wanted to bring down the Roman Empire that was ruling Judea at the time. 

“[Jesus] was alleged to have been an organizer of poor fishermen in Galilee,” said David. “He was said to frequent far-flung areas where the rebellious zealots also were. He was alleged to be frequently seen in the deserts and mountains. And take note, he was related to a known activist prophet named John the Baptist, who spoke about the inconvenient truths of their time.” 

It therefore came as a shock to many when the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, the government’s main red-tagging apparatus, claimed that the CBCP had joined it. But David quickly clarified that only the conference’s Episcopal Commission on Public Affairs overseen by one bishop had joined the task force. He added that the CBCP was only acting according to its mandate of engaging the government as private sector representative. The CBCP for its part said it would keep in mind the Church’s thrust on justice in its engagement with the task force.

The sun sets over this sugar plantation in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental province in southern Philippines. Considered the country’s sugar central, the province is one of the deadliest regions in the country for peasants and environmental defenders. (Photo: Shutterstock / JM Lopez)

Ablon, meanwhile, remains unbowed, using his pulpit and his office in Europe to bear witness to continuing rights violations in the Philippines. He has spoken before the United Nations in Geneva and in the Swiss capital of Bern during the city’s ‘Night of the Religions.’ 

The Protestant bishop has tried to content himself with seeing his wife and younger son only through video calls. He said that when Marcos Jr., a Duterte ally, became president, “I realized that I may not see my family and home anytime soon.” ◉

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This special report was produced in collaboration with the Asia Democracy Chronicles.

Bishop renews call for release of elderly prisoner and son

San Carlos Bishop Gerardo Alminaza appealed for pardon and parole for an elderly prisoner and her son who he describes as simple poor farmers from his diocese.

In a public petition, the prelate said 75-year old Moreta Alegre should be released due to her advanced age and physical ailments, including hypertensive cardiovascular disease.

Moreta and her son Selman had been in his heart for quite some time, the prelate said, adding that after 16 years in prison, both mother and son can be offered pardon and parole

He recalled that Moreta’s husband and Selman’s father Jesus who had been arrested with them has died in prison on June 13, 2021 of cardiac arrest. Jesus was 75 years old.

The Alegres are active members of San Carlos Diocese’s basic ecclesial community called Gagmay’ng Kristohanong Katilingban, the prelate said.

READ: 2nd oldest political prisoner dies in detention

Bishop Alminaza said the Alegres were displacement victims from their 15-hectare farmland by a landlord.

“They were convicted of killing the bodyguard of a local landlord, who subsequently claimed the land that had been tilled by the Alegre family. The Alegre family led a simple life, fishing and selling copra and tuba (native wine) as the produce of their toil,” Alminaza said.

“[T]heir efforts to secure papers that the land was theirs turned futile, once they were accused of murder. Jesus, Moreta, and Salem have maintained that they did not kill the landlord’s bodyguard; the landlord testified against them, but even the wife of the bodyguard did not persist in pursuing their prosecution,” he added.

The Bishop cited Pope Francis’s plea on January 19 that prisoners should never be deprived of hope.

“We risk being imprisoned in a justice that doesn’t allow one to easily get back up again and confuses redemption with punishment,” Alminaza quoted the Pontiff as saying last Wednesday in his regular public address at the Vatican.

Alminaza said he prays that that like others with more means, Moreta and Selman would be expediently granted release in the hope that the country’s justice system works and cares for the poor.

In June 2021, Alminaza has asked President Rodrigo Duterte and justice secretary Menardo Guevarra to grant clemency to both mother and son or for the review of their conviction.

READ: Bishop seeks clemency for mother-son political prisoners

“Moreta should be allowed to spend her remaining days loving her grandchildren and reconnecting with her children. This poor family has been separated for so long, as Jesus, Moreta, and Salem were detained in Manila jails while the rest of the family remained in Negros,” the prelate said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Bishop seeks clemency for mother-son political prisoners

A bishop asked for executive clemency for two political detainees, mother and son Morita and Selman Alegre, after the death of their patriarch and fellow prisoner of conscience Jesus who died last June 13.

In a public appeal, San Carlos Bishop Gerardo Alminaza asked President Rodrigo Duterte and justice secretary Menardo Guevarra to grant clemency to both mother and son or for the review of their conviction.

“As the shepherd of the Diocese of San Carlos, which counts the late Jesus Alegre and his family among its members, I appeal to President Rodrigo Duterte and Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra to allow the widowed Morita and her son Selman to attend the wake and the June 30 funeral of their beloved Jesus, who had been separated from them by prison for the last 16 years,” the bishop also said.

READ: 2nd oldest political prisoner dies in detention

The prelate announced that the remains of Jesus would be flown to Bacolod city in accordance with his wife Morita’s wishes for a full body burial for him in their home town of Sagay City.

“Morita is now 74 years old, and she and her son Selman have earned, through more than 16 years of pain and suffering, the right to be set free and live their remaining years with their loved ones,” Alminaza said.

The bishop said he is convinced the Alegres were victims of injustice.

“Kapatid, a support organization of political prisoners in the country, has documented the Alegres’ case extensively and came up with the conclusion that the case against them was clearly false and fabricated,” he said.

“With his death, Jesus Alegre is now free at last from worldly greed, oppression and injustice. But his widow and son, both unjustly convicted and imprisoned for the last 16 years, continue to languish and suffer in separate jails,” he added.

READ: ‘MAGSASAKA, BUTIHING AMA’: Who was Jesus Alegre and why he did not deserve a single day in prison

Alminaza also appealed for the freedom of the many poor who are similarly situated as the Alegres.

“Land grabbing is an old and persistent problem in Negros where the wealthy and powerful families have used both private and government instrumentalities to defeat the poor’s rights over their small parcels of land,” he said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

PNP’s Oplan Sauron and SEMPO killed the Tumandok 9—Bishop

A Roman Catholic Bishop said the massacre of nine Tumandok tribesfolk in Panay Island is a continuation of the mass killings and arrests in Negros Island since 2018 under operations devised by now Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Debold Sinas and one of his predecessors  and now Senator Rogelio “Bato” Dela Rosa.

San Carlos Bishop Gerardo Alminaza said that the Rizal Day massacre of the Tumandok is similar to the massacre of six and the mass arrest of 26 in the towns Guihulngan, Mabinay, and Sta. Catalina in Negros Oriental in December 2018 as well as the killing of 14 farmers in the island in March 2019.

“We recall with sadness that the ‘one-time, big-time’ SEMPO (Synchronized Enhanced Management of Police Operations) under Oplan Sauron by then-PNP Provincial Regional Office-7 Director Debold Sinas and PNP Chief Rogelio ‘Bato’ Dela Rosa led to violent killings and arrests,” Alminaza said in a statement.

“These operations were carried out mostly during wee hours, and the farmers were shot under unproven claims that they fought it out,” he added.

The Prelate also noted that the killings were part of the police’s service of search and arrest warrants while those arrested were later charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

Police and military operatives raided Tumandok tribal communities in Tapaz, Capiz and Calinog in Iloilo last December 30 that resulted in the death of nine who have been previously accused by government agents as New People’s Army members.

Killed were Eliseo Gayas, Jr., Mauro Diaz, Arcelito Katipunan, Mario Aguirre, Roy Giganto, Jomer Vidal, Dalson Catamin, Reynaldo Katipunan and Rolando Diaz, Sr. who campaigned for the return of their ancestral land by the military and opposed the construction of the Jalaur Mega-Dam project.

Some of the victims were elderly while four of them were elected local government officials.

Sixteen were also arrested, including minors.

However, both Oplan Sauron and SEMPO “failed to bring lasting peace and instead bred a culture of even more violence and disrespect for our people,” Alminaza said.

“Under the (Rodrigo) Duterte administration and Oplan Sauron alone, there are now over 106 cases of unsolved extrajudicial killings recorded in Negros island,” he added.

Alminaza said he is alarmed the killings in Capiz demonstrate how Oplan Sauron and SEMPO will be implemented throughout the country.

“To President Duterte and PNP Chief Sinas: Serve the God of Peace; Stop Sauron, the Lord of Evil!” the Bishop said.

Earlier, the Capiz Archdiocese Social Action Center (CASAC) expressed sadness that some of the victims were farmers and members of the indigenous people’s tribe while some are still missing and their families grieving.

“[T]his incident raises our concern and thus, vehemently condemn this act of violence. In this time of calmness, there should be no room for the cultivation of fear and impunity,” CASAC said.

The Promotion of Church People’s Response (PCPR) in Panay and Guimaras islands likewise condemned the Capiz massacre and blamed Sinas and President Duterte for the carnage.

“The brazen extra-judicial killings and illegal arrests of leaders of the Tumandok…is part of the nationwide implementation of PNP Chief Sinas’ version of ‘political tokhang,’ his brainchild SEMPO,” PCPR said.

The faith-based group also blamed the SEMPO for the assassinations of Bayan Muna Iloilo City Coordinator Jose Reynaldo “Jory” Porquia and Federation of Ilonggo Farmers leader John Farochilin in April 2020. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Another farmer killed in Bohol as 9 Tumandok are massacred in Panay

Another peasant activist in Bohol Province was killed just as nine Tumandok  civilians in Panay Island were being massacred last Wednesday in one of the bloodiest day for farmers under the four-year old Rodrigo Duterte government.

Lorenzo “Dodoy” Paña of Barangay Bantolinao, Antequera town was gunned down by unidentified motorcycle riding men around 9:00 AM last December 30 at Barangay Dorol, Balilihan town in Bohol, peasant organization Hugpong sa Mag-uumang Bol-anon-Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (HUMABOL-KMP) said.

Paña was on his way to bring lunch for his son working at a nearby construction site when fired upon by unidentified perpetrators.

Paña was a former officer of Hugpong sa Mag-uuma Dapit sa Kasadpan (HUMANDA KA), a formation of Humabol chapters in the first district of Bohol.

In 2018, the victim, along with his wife and children, worked as volunteers for the construction of a coconut processing plant managed by farmers organizations in Barangay Tinibgan, Maribojoc which now produces virgin coconut oil.

In June 26, 2018, the victim’s house was subjected to a warrantless search by around 30 members of SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) of the Philippine National Police (PNP) in the said province.

His family complained of maltreatment during the said incident, HUMABOL-KMP said.

In previous years, the Paña family also reported of being harassed by state forces.

Paña’s killing happened while the 12th Infantry Battalion-Philippine Army (12IBPA) troopers and the PNP in Western Visayas killed nine Tumandok indigenous peoples in Capiz and Iloilo provinces, also in the Visayas.

Bohol peasant activist Lorenzo “Dodoy” Paña, killed in Balilihan, Bohol last December 30. (Humabol-KMP photo)

Immediate condemnation of the Tumandok massacre

The massacre in Panay Island earned swift condemnation from church leaders and organizations.

San Carlos Bishop Gerardo Alminaza, whose Diocese suffered similar police and military Synchronized Enhanced Management of Police Operations (SEMPO) that also resulted in massacres, cried out, “Do we have to kill our perceived ‘enemies’ – especially if they are unarmed?”

“Is this the way we celebrate Christmas as a Christian country about to welcome the New Year and 500 Years of Christianity [in the Philippines?” the prelate asked.

“How long will this spiral of violence continue? Have we run out of peaceful means? Are we that desperate? Do we really, seriously believe this is the effective and lasting way to solve our social ills? I RAISE MY VOICE TO CRY OUT: “NO MORE KILLING!” We want PEACE – JUST and LASTING PEACE!” he added.

The Promotion of Church People’s Response (PNP) in Panay and Guimaras islands directly blamed PNP chief Debold Sinas for the death of nine Tumandok leaders and activists yesterday.

“The brazen extra-judicial killings and illegal arrests of leaders of the Tumandok, an indigenous people of Panay, on the early hours of yesterday in the mountainous villages of Tapaz, Capiz and Calinog, Iloilo is part of the nationwide implementation of PNP Chief Sinas’ version of ‘political tokhang’, his brainchild SEMPO,” PCPR’s Fr. Marco Sulayao said in a statement.

The faith-based group also blamed National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) agent Jeffrey Celis it said petitioned for the search warrants in Metro Manila Regional Trial Courts used for the operations.

“Blood is on the hands of NTF-ELCAC red-taggers, especially Jeffrey Celis, who according to [a] reliable source, petitioned for the said warrants,” PCPR said.

National labor federation Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) included President Rodrigo Duterte in the blame for the massacre.

“The blood of the Tumandok is in the hands of Duterte, Sinas, PNP and NTF-ELCAC. They wantonly kill the indigenous peoples to give way to projects of big capitalists,” KMU said in a statement.

“We condemn this heinous killing perpetrated by the mercenary AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) -PNP. It is most likely that the police and military will present the killed and arrested Tumandok as members of the New People’s Army when in fact, they are just farmers and indigenous people defending their ancestral land and farms against land grabbing,” KMP chairperson Danilo Ramos said. 

Indigenous people’s group Kalipunan ng Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas (Katribu) also denounced “the government’s wanton disregard for human rights and laments the death of our people’s heroes.”

“Our fight against the construction of Jalaur and Pan-ay Dams have not ended yet so we remain resolute in defending what’s left of our rivers and forests. Despite violence and threats, we will relentlessly and fiercely stand against corporate plunder and the destruction of the environment,” Katribu said in a statement.

“The indigenous peoples have nowhere to run to anymore. We will certainly hold the line,” it added.

An IP rights advocate calls for the dissolution of the government agency they blame for red-tagging the victims that led to their massacre. (Katribu photo)

Red-tagged victims

Killed in the synchronized and simultaneous operations in the neighboring towns were former Barangay Captain and  current Tumandok nga Mangunguma nga Nagapangapin sa Duta kag Kabuhi (TUMANDUK) chairperson Roy Giganto, his Barangay Lahug co-councilors Reynaldo Katipunan, and Mario Aguirre; Eliseo Gayas Jr. of Barangay Aglinab, Tapaz; Mario Diaz of Barangay Tacayan, Tapaz; Artilito Katipunan of Barangay Acuna, Tapaz; and Barangay Nawayan chairperson Dalson Catamen of Tapaz.

Former TUMANDUK chairperson and Tapaz local government employee Marevic Aquirre is missing, believed to have been abducted by the police.

Two youth residents of Barangay Aglinab, Tapaz town are also reported missing.

The PNP reported it arrested 17 other Tumandok from its SEMPO.

“These Tumandok leaders were very active in reclaiming their ancestral land now occupied by the 3rd Infantry Division, Philippine Army military reservation. They were also active in resisting the construction of the Jalaur mega-dam,” PCPR said.

The community of Lahug also resisted the coercion of military troopers to sign a resolution declaring the CPP/NPA as “persona non grata” in their barangay, the group added. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Bishop issues oratio imperata against Negros killings

Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of the Diocese of San Carlos issued another pastoral appeal asking the people of Negros Oriental to pray with him following the murder of four more civilians early Saturday morning.

In his third pastoral letter this week, Bishop Alminaza issued an urgent call to prayer and action to end the killings in Negros Island via an oratio imperata.

“Heavenly Father, the source of life and foundation of peace, we your children mourn, worry, and are anxious because of the successive murders of our brothers and sisters.

We beg you, awaken the minds of those who don’t even care, disturb the conscience of those who author the killings, touch the hearts of those who support the murders, and comfort those who mourn.

Give us the strength to fight evil with good, and to reject crooked ways. Protect us from the lies of the devil, and free our country from the power of Satan. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

(Alminaza’s Oratio Imperata of Cebu)

An oratio imperata is a short Roman Catholic invocative prayer a bishop issues in times of grave need and calamities.

Alminaza’s appeal came after four more executions within his diocese were reported by human rights organizations.

“Today, in Canlaon City and in Ayungon, Negros Oriental, four lives again perished from gun barrels of criminals. When life is always sacred, these criminals have treated life as dispensable,” the prelate said.

Former Ayungon mayor Edcel Enardecido and his cousin Leo Enardecido were killed around 2:30 a.m. while Canlaon City Councilor Bobby Jalandoni and Barangay Panubigan Chairperson Ernesto Posadas were killed separately, bringing to at least 21 the deaths from a wave of violence that has swept the province of Negros Oriental since a week ago.

Bishop’s third pastoral appeal this week.

Alminaza said three of the latest victims were government officials close to the hearts of the poor in their localities.

“While serving as elected officials, they wholeheartedly defended those who have less in life and promoted programs to help them,” Alminaza said.

“Those who were killed are persons; they are not just numbers or statistics! We fervently pray that we may not continue counting dead bodies; that every one of us will continue protecting human lives,” he added.

The prelate said the “pattern of systemic killings” is alarming.

“Who will be next?” he asked.

Alminaza issued his first pastoral letter two days after the killing of human rights lawyer Anthony Trinidad in Dumaguete City last July 23.

Alminaza condemned Trinidad’s murder and the wounding of his wife and called for the resumption of the peace process between the Duterte government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines as a way to stop the attacks on civilians alleged to be supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

After the killing of three more civilians last Thursday, July 24, an angered Alminaza issued his second pastoral letter last Friday calling for the ringing of church bells around his diocese at 8 PM every evening starting Sunday.

Before that day ended, however, four more were killed, bringing to seven the number of civilians murdered last Thursday.

“In anger and in a call for justice, in a spirit of communion and in a collective prayer, we exhort our parishes, mission stations and religious houses to ring our church bells every 8PM stating this July 28, 2019 (Sunday) until the killings stop,” Alminaza said in his second pastoral appeal.

“Let the toiling of bells remind us that the senseless killings are inhuman. Let the tolling of the church bells call us to a collective prayer, for us to beg God to touch the hearts of perpetrators, as we call on responsible government agencies to effectively address the series of deaths,” the prelate added.

Alminaza’s second pastoral appeal exhorted the government to act on ending the killings. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)