08/23/2006, 00.00
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In Mindanao, the Church working for tribal people, not the rebels

The bishop of Kidapawan and PIME's Fr Peter Geremia tell local army commanders that the Church is not involved with Communist guerrillas. The military offers their assistance to the Church in its pastoral mission in the diocese.

Kidapawan (AsiaNews) – Mgr Romulo Valles, bishop of Kidapawan, and his aides, including PIME'S Fr Peter Geremia, have convinced army brass in Mindanao that their pastoral work among local tribal communities on the island of Mindanao is not linked in any way, shape or form to guerrilla activities by local rebels. Father Geremia said that by the end of their talk with army commanders they were able to gain the army's trust and an offer of assistance to their mission.

The positive outcome is the result of two days of discussion that took place last Sunday and Monday with the commanders of army units sent to the region by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to suppress "by any means" a local rebellion.

During the army's operations, rumours spread that the schools and health clinics run by the Church "were the rebels' true training camps".

"We went with Mgr Romulo Valles into the mountains, to the army camps, to clear up the misunderstanding," Father Geremia told AsiaNews. "The colonel in charge of operations told us about the accusations, but when the bishop asked him to provide concrete evidence, he couldn't."

"We later found out that our names were given by a local man, an informer, who had trained in our schools," the Father explained. "But the man himself couldn't provide any evidence to back his claim that we were working with the rebels. Pressed by Mgr Valles, the colonel admitted he didn't believe the charges".

The diocese of Kidapawan is in the southern part of Mindanao Island. It includes nine towns in North Cotabato province, two in Maguindanao province and one in Sultan Kudarat, covering a land area of 1,199 square kilometres with a population of 670,000 people, of which 78 per cent are Catholics and 20 per cent, Muslim.

In the early seventies, the two communities clashed and the resulting conflict left an unknown number of dead. But in addition to the sectarian violence, the region has become embroiled in a "land war", a struggle that has seen paramilitary groups kill anyone suspected of helping the poor and defenceless, sometimes with the assistance of the regular army, all in the name of the "war on communism".

PIME missionary, Fr Tullio Favali, was one of those victims. He was killed on April 11, 1985.

And on June 19 of this year, a married couple that worked with the diocese—George and Maricel Vigo—, respectively 35 and 37 with five children, were chased in a motorcycle and shot dead as they were going home.

Despite the tense situation due to the presence of Communist guerrillas, the Church has never stopped performing its duties vis-à-vis the weakest segments of the population, namely tribal communities.

Diocesan programmes that instil a Christian ethos, help family life, educate the young, and develop the vocational ministry have remained active. The Church has also provided tribals legal and economic assistance, and worked to develop the local health care system.

The GKK-Kidapawan Foundation Inc, or Kidapawan's Foundation for Social Action, was set up to help the local population develop and better meet its socio-economic needs in an area poor in natural resources. For example, people's cooperatives have been created to provide professional training.

"From time to time we try to work out a compromise with the authorities, clear up misunderstandings," Father Geremia explained. "We work for the poor; it's our mission. When the colonel told the bishop to stop our activities, the bishop said it is what the Gospels teach the faithful and that without them we cannot live as Christians. Finally though, thank the Lord, the military believed us, and even offered to help us in our work. They reassured us that nothing would happen to us."

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