KIDAPAWAN, Philippines (CNS) — Justice is slow in the Philippines, but Father Peter Geremia is running out of patience as he awaits justice for the killers of a fellow priest.
Father Geremia is hoping that the country’s new president, Rodrigo Duterte, can cut through the impunity and corruption that the priest says have prevented bringing to justice the killers of Father Fausto Tentorio. The Italian missionary was shot to death on Oct. 17, 2011, just outside his parish office in the rural town of Arakan on the southern island of Mindanao, where he had helped indigenous communities organize to resist the theft of their lands by foreign mining companies, loggers, and large agro-export plantations.
Father Geremia, who was born in Italy but became a U.S. citizen in 1971 after living in the United States for more than a decade, is a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, as were Father Tentorio and two other priests assassinated in Mindanao. One of them, Father Tullio Favali, was murdered in 1985 by military-linked assassins who thought they were killing Father Geremia. Six men were convicted of that killing and served lengthy prison terms.
But that’s not the case with Father Tentorio’s killers, who remain officially unidentified despite multiple investigations and a Byzantine trail of confessions and recantations by people with links to a paramilitary squad.
Father Geremia says the church got several key witnesses to Father Tentorio’s killing into a witness protection program, but as the case has dragged on, the witnesses have chafed at their lack of freedom.
“It’s been five years since the killing, and after a while the witnesses and their families couldn’t stand it, it was like being in prison. They’d had to abandon their homes and farms and we had to support their families,” Father Geremia told Catholic News Service.
The priest, who met personally with the leader of one paramilitary group linked to the killing in an unsuccessful attempt to get him to confess, is hoping things will improve under Duterte, who took office June 30. As part of the president’s pursuit of a peace deal with the National Democratic Front, in September he ordered the Philippine army to dismantle the paramilitary groups blamed for widespread repression in indigenous communities.
“These groups are instruments of politicians and the military and serve as security guards for the big plantations and mining operations. They are often composed of indigenous people who’ve been manipulated by the military and armed with high-powered weapons. They have steadily taken over land and driven people out of their homes, all in an effort to destroy the tribal communities. It’s genocide,” said Father Geremia.
Asked if he knows the identity of Father Tentorio’s killers, Geremia declined to answer specifically, but said the country’s army was clearly involved.
“We cannot point fingers at individuals, because they have the right to due process,” he said. “But the investigators know very well. The initial information from the National Bureau of Investigation mentions names, but they always refuse to admit the military was in control of the area. Fausto could not have been killed without their permission. When he was killed there were soldiers just a few meters away. The killers felt safe to wait for Fausto in broad daylight with the military all around. And after the killing, they just got on a motorcycle and went away without anyone asking them any questions.”
Like many church workers who have sided with indigenous communities in Mindanao, Father Geremia has endured years of harassment and threats. According to Sister Maria Luz Mallo, the executive secretary of the Sisters Association in Mindanao, Father Geremia’s commitment during 44 years of pastoral work in the Philippines has brought him unique acceptance by native communities.
“Father Peter may have been born in Italy, but the blood that flows through his veins is Filipino,” she said.
Sister Mallo, a member of the Missionaries of the Assumption, has provided pastoral accompaniment to indigenous families — chased out of their rural villages by paramilitary violence — who have sought refuge in a Protestant church compound in Davao. She said church workers who side with the indigenous are going to suffer.
“Sometimes we are followed, and people often accuse us of being part of the NPA (communist New People’s Army), of being reds. But we are not working against the government, we are just responding to the needs of the people. And we will continue to stand as prophets even though we are red-tagged and our security is threatened. That’s part of following Christ,” she said.
The struggle of Mindanao’s indigenous people, commonly known as Lumads, took a bloody turn April 1 when police opened fire on several thousand demonstrators in Kidapawan, killing three and wounding dozens more.
The protesters were indigenous and nonindigenous farmers suffering from a prolonged drought. They came to Kidapawan to pressure the provincial government to release thousands of sacks of rice that the national government had sent for their relief.
It wasn’t the first such incident. During a 1992 drought, Father Geremia and several indigenous leaders were jailed for 28 days following a similar protest. A drought struck again in 1998, but the provincial government released the rice in response to farmers’ demands.
During this year’s protest, Father Geremia was trying to mediate between the protesters and the government when shots rang out. As many of the demonstrators took refuge in a nearby United Methodist Church compound, Father Geremia stood at the entrance and forbade the police from entering.
In the wake of the melee, charges were filed against almost 100 of the protesters and their supporters, who in turn filed countercharges against the police and the North Cotabato provincial governor, Emmylou Talino-Mendoza, who reportedly ordered the violence. Those cases are pending in court, though Duterte reportedly has pressured to have them dropped.
Valentina Berdin of Arakan was one of those charged. The 78-year-old indigenous woman was held for 11 days before her release pending trial.
“We planted rice, but because of El Nino, none came up. I went to Kidapawan because the alternative was starving to death,” said Berdin, who is charged with assaulting a police officer.
“I didn’t assault him. I turned myself over to him so I wouldn’t get shot,” she said.
Father Geremia said those captured by the police were the ones who could not run fast.
“How insulting it is to the police that the only ones they arrested were the old women and the wounded,” he said.
Although the demonstrators were unable to obtain food with their protest, Berdin said she has been offered one sack of rice and 4,000 pesos (about $82) every month if she agrees to drop the charges against the governor.
Berdin says she that she and other indigenous people in Mindanao appreciate the accompaniment of church leaders like Father Geremia.
“Father Peter has continued the work of Father Fausto in supporting the Lumads against the mining companies and the plantations that are trying to take our land. With Father Peter on our side, we will continue to fight for our rights,” she said.