“We must never forget that dark part of our history, especially in light of the massive disinformation and denialism of these days, the historical distortion of what happened in the past,” said Bishop Reuel Norman O. Marigza, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines.
Marcos imposed martial law in 1972. It effectively lasted until he was driven from power by a church-supported popular uprising in 1986.
“Some even want to suggest that martial law was a good thing for the Philippines, but we’re here to say that is not the case. The truth is that many suffered during martial law, and it’s important to remind our people that it should never be repeated again,” Marigza said.
Participants in the memorial service placed flowers in front of the altar as they remembered what they called “the heroes and martyrs of martial law.” Many then went to a large outdoor rally where they joined thousands of people marking the anniversary with protest songs and chants of “Never again!”
The ecumenical gathering took place less than three months after the former dictator’s son, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., was inaugurated as president of the Philippines following a landslide election victory in May. Given increased arrests and rising repression of church workers under the country’s 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act, some church leaders are feeling a worrisome sense of deja vu.
“While there has been no formal declaration of martial law, there’s certainly a trend, beginning with the [Rodrigo] Duterte government and continuing into the Marcos, Jr., administration, to vilify and red-tag those who express a negative opinion of the government,” Marigza said, citing what he called “trumped up charges” filed recently against 16 members of Rural Missionaries of the Philippines who the government alleges provided financial support to members of the armed opposition.
In an 18 August statement the missionary group issued in response, it noted: “The Marcos II government is using the same playbook by predecessor Duterte by demonizing legal democratic organizations such as RMP which provide much-needed services to the people and putting its members in direct harm’s way. Rabid and lethal red-tagging, weaponization of the law, and impunity for human rights violations continue to be state policies that must be vigorously opposed.”
The government has this year seized several of the group’s bank accounts and closed its website.
“With this latest state attack, Marcos II is showing he is, after all, true to his core as the dictator’s son,” the missionary group stated.
Both Catholics and Protestants have suffered. Marigza said his own denomination, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, has been targeted by official disinformation.
“They claim the UCCP has been infiltrated by communists and that guns are stored in our churches. They do that with no basis in fact, but since there’s no rule of law, no due process, then these people can get away with airing whatever lies they want to concoct,” he said.
A United Methodist clergywoman, Rev. Glofie Baluntong, is one of the latest church leaders to be red-tagged. A pastor and district superintendent on the island of Mindoro, where she has worked with the indigenous Mangyans for more than 20 years, she has been followed and harassed in the past, but in 2021 authorities charged her with attempted murder after an alleged gun battle between government soldiers and members of the rebel New People’s Army.
That Baluntong was officiating at a burial service elsewhere on Mindoro at the time of the violence, with dozens of witnesses, didn’t dissuade prosecutors from pressing charges. She borrowed money to pay bail and over the last year has appeared in court four times. Each time the case has been continued, and she’s currently awaiting a December hearing.
Although she resisted, her denomination finally moved her to Manila where she stays in a church compound.
“When the warrant for my arrest first came out, the bishop wanted to transfer me right away. But the church in Mindoro has such a small number of workers, I didn’t want to leave. Yet here I am in Manila, where I’ve had to reorient my work for my own safety,” she said.
“I’m afraid, of course. Mindoro has a very bad history of the extra-judicial execution of activists. I’m afraid. But we have to go on.”
With both her denomination and the larger ecumenical community protesting her situation, Baluntong has assumed a highly visible public profile. She hopes that will help victims of red-tagging who aren’t as well known.
“By speaking out, I’m hoping to raise awareness that this is what happens all too often to people engaged in social justice ministries. And they cannot do anything bad to me because of the support I’ve received. At least I hope and pray that’s true,” she said.
An 84-year old Catholic nun who has been red-tagged for decades says social status can protect some, but not all.
“If I were not a sister, I would be assassinated. But because I’m a sister, with institutional support, and because I live in a religious institution with guards outside, they can’t get to me. But if you’re a lay person, they just go and kill you,” said Sister Mary John Mananzan, a Missionary Benedictine nun.
Mananzan claims it’s an honor of sorts to be threatened with assassination.
“If I look at all the people they’re red-tagging, they are the most authentic people, they really love their country, they have excellent self-sacrificing lives,” she said. “So I’m not being insulted when I’m lined up with them. I’m being put on the honor roll.”