A reflection contributed by Emma Bridger of the United Society Partners in the Gospel – USPG in London, United Kingdom. She recently visited Philippines including the lumad communities in Mindanao particularly in Barangay Saad, Dumingag, Zamboanga del Sur.

Emma Bridger. A photo from her Facebook account.

Is state interference with the mission of the church an abuse of freedom of religion or belief?

The mission of the IFI churches in Mindanao includes the Lumad ministry through which the church works with the Lumad Indigenous persons to protect their rights to their ancestral land. Much of the Lumad ancestral domain is rich in minerals and so prone to exploitation by large plantation and mining corporations with devastating effects for the people who are forcibly removed from their land and livelihoods and the ecosystems destroyed and polluted. These companies see nothing but money and their abuse persists, with the support of the military, despite the visibility of the impact of mining where gaping wounds glare from the forest and the red earth bleeds into the sea.

The IFI itself is a tangible outcome of a people’s movement and the Filipino revolution with an incredible history of fighting for social justice. The IFI are called to proclaim the good news to the poor, the prisoner and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19) and it is therefore unsurprising that part of the mission of the IFI is presence, accompaniment and ministry with the Lumad peoples.

What then can we make of not only the red-tagging of the IFI as members of the New Peoples’ Army (NPA) but also the increasing number of obstacles they have to pass to even be able to enter Lumad communities and the number of situations in which this is no longer possible?

Whether these activities are defined as religious mission, humanitarian response or whether the two are seen as one of the same the actions of the IFI are protected in international law. Even with government accusations that the Lumads support the NPA, humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality still apply in this case as they do in any war or conflict. Furthermore, even if the government hold reductionist ideas of Christianity and believe that church should only happen within a church building on a Sunday, Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) allows for the full manifestation of one’s religion. FoRB is not only being abused when the IFI are denied access to Lumad communities but also when the labelling of the IFI as NPA affects the ability of some communities to worship on a Sunday. This has manifested particularly in rural communities where some are now so afraid of military ramifications that they have asked the priest not to return.

The IFI are simply fulfilling their God given mission where the only role of the church is to love, not judge, as is taught in the Bible (John 8:7-11). Why does the government then find it so hard to understand that the IFI are not members of the NPA? Is there a religious literacy problem within the government? Or, is this simply just a way to silence those who defend the rights of the most marginalized so that the government can continue to abuse and exploit them for financial gain?

Is the red-tagging of the IFI for pursuing their God given mission that does no harm but brings love to others, an abuse of Freedom of Religion or Belief?

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