Zamboanga (AsiaNews) - Filipino bishops have criticised the new government decree authorising priests and religious, especially in high-risk areas, to carry guns and rifles. For the prelates "going around with weapons, even in self-defence, is incompatible with the Christian faith."
"The missionaries are by definition non-violent and are protected by holy angels, not weapons," said Mgr Arturo Bastes, bishop of Sorgoson. Mgr Honesto Ongtioco, bishop of Cubao (Quezon City), agrees. "As priests," he explained, "our vocation and our role in the transformation of society are different from those of secular activists. We must be concerned about our mission among the faithful, not for our own safety."
Signed by the president on 29 May, the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act makes it easier for activists, journalists, doctors and religious leaders to carry weapons. The latter are often the victims of kidnapping, summary executions and robberies by groups of terrorists or criminals.
The decree applies only to some parts of the country, most notably Sulu and Basilan provinces (Mindanao), which are strongholds of the Islamic extremist group Abu-Sayyaf.
Sources in Mindanao told AsiaNews that the law "is designed primarily to check the illegal arms trade, which has the island as one of its hubs." Adding the religious to the list is a way of inviting all those who operate in those areas to travel with caution. However, "it is a sign of insecurity that prevails in some areas of the country, where not even priests, who work for peace, are spared the violence of criminal groups."
For several years, the authorities have tried to get bishops and foreign missionaries working in Mindanao to accept armed escorts when they receive threats from extremist groups or criminals.
Religious have tended to turn down the offer because "Travelling with armed soldiers limits their testimony amid the people who face such dangers every day as a result of more than 40 years of war between the Filipino army and Islamic rebels," sources told AsiaNews, confirming what Filipino bishops said.
In recent years, several priests and religious have been murdered or abducted by criminal gangs or terrorist groups.
The most recent case was that of Fr Fausto Tentorio, 59, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Arakan Valley (Mindanao), who was gunned down on 17 October 2011.
He was the third PIME missionary murdered in the Philippines. The other martyrs were Fr Tullio Favalli killed in 1985 in the Diocese of Kidapawan, and Fr Salvatore Carzedda, who was involved in talks with Muslims, murdered in 1992 in Zamboanga. (S.C.)