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ANS (01/08/06) – A US United Methodist Church delegation on human rights in the Philippines has called upon President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to take a more aggressive role to stop the killing of clergy, laity, journalists and human rights workers who work with the poor.

Noting that “extrajudicial” murders had increased in the past year throughout the country, Bishop John Hopkins, head of the delegation, told a news conference in Manila : “The killing must stop.”

Hopkins said the delegation heard deeply moving first-hand testimony from more than 20 victims and surviving family members from many parts of the Philippines, who described the pain and suffering exacted through murders targeting religious and community workers.

“Our people are not armed,” said the bishop, who leads the denomination’s Ohio East Area. “They teach, provide medical care, counsel and educate. We implore the government and military officials to recognize the important work of those who seek to minister with the poor and marginalized, and to distinguish their work as vital and important to the country and its people.”

In hearings with victims, the delegation was told such work is often called “subversive,” and individuals engaged in human rights education are falsely accused of supporting terrorism or holding membership in political groups advocating violent resistance to the Arroyo administration.

In an extended visit with Scott Douglas Bellard, acting deputy chief of mission at the US embassy, the delegation sought the assistance of US officials to press the Philippine government to distinguish between armed terrorists and church and community workers who are conducting their work peacefully.

Bellard is the highest-ranking U.S. official in the embassy. A nomination to fill the vacant post of ambassador to the Philippines was made while the delegation was en route to Manila .

Similarly, the delegation met with Maria Isabel Gonzales-Tobias, undersecretary for religious affairs of the Philippine government, and with several high-ranking members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines .

Delegation members pressed for an end to the adverse labeling of human rights activists and religious workers. Military officials denied that lists known as “order of battle” exist at the national level, but conceded that commanders in local assignments might identify “known troublemakers.”

Kristina Gonzalez, a member of the delegation and of the church’s coordinating council known as the Connectional Table, told the news conference the security of the nation is being “inversely affected by its lack of commitment to human rights.”

“The more the government secures the rights of the people, the more secure the whole nation will be,” she said. “Similarly, when human rights are violated, the country is less secure.”

Jim Winkler, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, reported that witnesses and survivors told the delegation of armed military personnel in full body armor appearing in neighborhoods and asking the whereabouts of clergy and other workers. Those people then disappear or are found murdered.

“We heard patterns of systematic extrajudicial killing,” he said.

He recalled other accounts of false public accusations against individuals who began to receive notes with death threats slipped under their doors, sent via text messages or through telephone calls. One priest reported a note threatening his death – accompanied by bullets – being placed in the offering plate of his parish during Sunday worship services.

Several families told of armed men, on motorcycles and wearing ski masks and helmets, ambushing individuals and killing them. The motorcycles lack license tags or carry counterfeit tags, making them untraceable.

The Rev Larry Pickens, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Affairs and a lawyer, said even those accused of crime must be assured proper legal rights, including the right to face their accusers and to present evidence in their own defense.

Bishop Solito K. Toquero, resident bishop of the Manila Area, noted that the high-level delegation of United Methodist leaders is the second international church group to visit the country and to express deep concern regarding worsening human rights, especially the killings of activists and church workers. Toquero has been rumored to be among those targeted.

The delegation called for Arroyo to begin an immediate and impartial investigation of all recent extrajudicial executions; make a commitment not to impose martial rule or other limitations on civil liberties or human rights; and revise the government’s military strategy for resolving the insurgency to ensure the safety of noncombatants and to avoid the indiscriminate destruction of property.

It also asked the president to cease the practice by the government and military of labeling those who work for justice and for the poor as subversive or communist; and to conduct follow-up meetings with the three bishops of the United Methodist Church in the Philippines , including mission partners in other communions, to discuss progress on the investigations.

The delegation was invited to the Philippines by United Methodist leaders in the country.

Delegation members expressed solidarity with the church in the Philippines and stated support for “courageous ministry with the poor and marginalized.”