Priest hopes Duterte can help bring fellow missionary's killer to justice

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

By Paul Jeffrey

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Berdin of Arakan was one of those charged. The 78-year-old indigenous woman was
held for 11 days before her release pending trial.

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.

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.

insulting it is to the police that the only ones they arrested were the old
women and the wounded,” he said.

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.

says she that she and other indigenous people in Mindanao appreciate the
accompaniment of church leaders like Father Geremia.

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

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