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Iglesia Filipina Independiente in Southern Philippines faces persecution

By Santosh Digal

Special to ASSIST News Service

10/26/06 PHILIPPINES (ANS) — Bishop Delfin Callao Jr. probably didn’t imagine that only four months after he was elected the head of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) in Southern Mindanao ( Philippines )his church would face a time of persecution it hadn’t experienced in a long time. Or that he would, at least in this part of the country, be a leading voice against what is clearly a growing predilection by the president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration for tyranny.

But that is exactly what happened. Callao had barely warmed his seat when Bishop Alberto Ramento of the IFI’s diocese in Tarlac City, 105 kilometers of north of Manila and the former “supreme bishop” of the church was cold-bloodedly murdered on Oct. 3 in what the church and human-rights groups consider part of the state’s campaign to violently silence its critics and those who aspire for social change. What followed was a period of anguish unlike anything the IFI has gone through in recent memory.

As expected, the IFI’s cry for justice was the loudest. “We have witnessed the state’s ruthless massacre of innocent lives, its anomalies and deceits, the blatant violation of the people’s civil rights that has included the church in the list of the most harassed sectors in our society, and the relentless attempt to destroy our rank,” Callao said in a statement a day after Ramento was killed.

“But none of these,” he added, “have defeated our cause.” For Callao, it is a great cause, something that runs not only in his blood — his father, the late Bishop Delfin Callao Sr., also of the Davao diocese, loomed large in his defense of human rights and the welfare of the poor – but in the underlying principles, rooted in nationalism and equality, that make the IFI such an enduring religious institution.

The IFI, also known as the Philippine Independent Church, is known as the only Protestant church in the country that has stood by its revolutionary beginnings, having been a product of the 1896 Philippine Revolution against imperial Spain . Today, IFI adherents can be found all throughout the Philippines .

In his homily days before his installation as the new bishop, Callao , who was fondly called “Father Boying” by friends and parishioners, offered himself to the diocese. “Great things are products of collective minds and efforts,” he said. A festive mood pervaded the atmosphere inside the Cathedral of the Risen Lord, along Torres Street in this city, that day in July.

Callao was elected to the post by the national council of bishops of the IFI in May. He took over from Bishop Felixberto Calang, who left in 2003 for the diocese in Northern Mindanao based in Cagayan de Oro City.

Some would say that the consecration of Callao as the new bishop of Southern Mindanao was a blessing and a gift to the parishioners of this diocese. He followed the footsteps of his father and parishioners could not avoid looking up to the son as lovingly as they did to the father.

“I am not competing with my predecessor. It just happens that we believe in the same principles,” Callao replied when asked what he thought of the expectations among those who knew the good deeds of his father during his time as the bishop of the diocese in the 80s.

The third of six siblings, Callao entered priesthood only by chance, his 72-year-old mother “Nanay” Liwayway Damiao-Callao said. Still strong and active in church activities despite her age, Nanay Liway recalled with fondness that Callao took the entrance examination at the Saint Andrews seminary in Cabadbaran, before graduating from high school in the early ‘80s, “only out of curiosity.”

Her son, she said, passed the entrance without difficulty — and that was the beginning of his smooth journey to priesthood.

But that was just the half of it: it was actually Callao ’s younger brother, Ezra Weland, who was being groomed for the priesthood at that time. But, Nanay Liway mused, perhaps it was God’s plan that Callao became a priest.

“What you offer to me is your first born son,” Nanay Liway said, quoting God as telling Abraham.

Preceded by two elder sisters Lidel Lou and Luth, the bishop and Ezra have two other younger sisters: Leila Louise and Lexzette Merciros. Nanay Liway now has a dozen grandchildren.

Callao was ordained as a priest in Placer, Surigao del Norte, in 1985. During this time, Callao Sr. was the bishop of the Agusan-Surigao diocese since 1964 (he was assigned in the Davao diocese only in 1989). The elder Callao ’s active involvement in human rights advocacy in the martial law years led to his arrest in Placer at the height of the political repression of church people in Mindanao .

As he assumes his new ministry in these trying times, when church people have become the next targets of persecution by the regime, “Bishop Boying” proved that he had kept the family’s tradition of human-rights advocacy and, more importantly, his church’s commitment to be on the side of the oppressed and those who seek justice.

“The vital role that the church has unfailingly played in achieving meaningful and genuine societal change, has indeed strengthened the Filipino people’s struggle for freedom, peace, justice and equality,” he said earlier this month.

“And in every situation that has challenged the dedication church people have given in all their advocacies for the common good, Iglesia Filipina Independiente has undoubtedly stood with courage and dignity because we, shepherds in the faith of God and protector of human dignity, are called together to stand on the side of the oppressed and the disenfranchised and to sacrifice in order to break the bondage of injustices.” He is, indeed, his father’s son.