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Bishops asked to broker peace for Lumads

MANILA (Agencies) : Leaders of Lumad communities in Mindanao are asking the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of The Philippines to go beyond issuing statements condemning the recent murders of their community leaders and to actively intervene in ending the militarisation of tribal community areas.

Four indigenous leaders and a 14-year-old student from the Alternative Learning Centre for Agricultural and Livelihood Development urged Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the president of the Permanent Committee on Public Affairs, to convince the Catholic hierarchy to facilitate the revival of peace talks between the government and the Communist Party of The Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front.

Kakay Tolentino, an Alta-Dumagat from Aurora, said that the peace talks would end the military encampment at tribal schools and communities across the country.

In Mindanao alone, occupation of tribal communities by the military has forced over 3,000 Lumads to retreat to evacuation areas in Tandag City, while 500 others have taken shelter in Davao City.

“The military tag students, teachers and leaders of the Alternative Learning Centre for Agricultural and Livelihood Development as being members of the New People’s Army. That is why they occupy the school. In our view, peace talks is the only way to (clarify the misconceptions and convince them to pullout),” Tolentino said.

Bishop Pabillo agreed that peace talks between government and the Communist front should be revived, since the conflict is not only prevalent in Mindanao, but across the country.

However, he clarified that Church leaders, such as Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, from Cagayan de Oro, and Bishop Deogracias Iñiguez, retired from Caloocan, as well as others, have already been part of movements advocating the revival of the peace talks.

“Calling for the revival of the peace talks is not something new. In fact, there is ongoing action and Church leaders like Archbishop Ledesma and Bishop Iñiguez are already brokering for peace talks,” Bishop Pabillo said.

“The peace talks cannot completely solve the problem, but can lessen (the incidents), because the military claims that they are only after the New People’s Army members,” the auxiliary bishop of Manila pointed out.

Jhon Jhon Clava, a volunteer teacher, said armed forces occupying their school have destroyed its facilities, forcing them to hold classes at evacuation areas.

“We really want the military forces to pullout from the school so that the students can return and continue their studies. From what we have learned, the soldiers have been using the classroom chairs as firewood,” Clava told Bishop Pabillo.

Rachelle Libora, whose father was murdered by the militias, said that students like her are eager to go back to school since evacuation centres are not a conducive place for learning.

“At the evacuation areas, we sit on our slippers, because we do not have chairs. We also want to go back to school because our vegetable gardens and our poultry need attention,” she said.

Military forces have also occupied the school of the Tribal Filipino Programme of Surigao del Sur.

According to Dulphing Ogan, who flew in from Davao City, displaced Lumad people will be forced to stay longer at evacuation areas if military forces continue to occupy their schools and communities.

“We hope the bishops would go beyond issuing a statement and help us further by providing material support for the Lumads like relief goods and financial aid. We would also appreciate the visibility of the Catholic Church at the evacuation areas,” he said.

After the two-hour dialogue, Bishop Pabillo said the meeting was an occasion for indigneous people and the Church to collaborate.

“I think we can attend to their expectations. It is possible to help them and support them especially when most of the Lumads will come to Manila by October,” he said.

Earlier, the bishops demanded  an honest, thorough, impartial and speedy investigation into the murder of the school director, Emerito Samarca, and two Lumad leaders on September 1.

The militia group, Magahat-Bagani, was tagged as being behind the murders. The group reportedly works with the 36th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army.